Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: The Imitation Game

[Note: as a biopic, I don’t think Turing’s later life should be considered a spoiler. It hangs heavily on the whole film. If you do want to go in not knowing, listen to the linked mini-review or skip to the last paragraph for the TL;DR]

When I saw a small screening of the Imitation Game open up in San Francisco, it didn’t matter that I’d barely slept, or that I’d be going directly from a long, very well-stocked Christmas party. I knew I had to see it. So I tiredly cabbed through a storm, ordered an extra drink for good measure, and watched in bated breath as the film expertly set its stage. So expertly, I knew I could close my eyes for a second and still get the gist. Just lean back in that comfy leather recliner, lids down, soaking in the dulcet tones of Benedict Cumberbatch…One $15 nap later, I decided I’d need to catch the film again in theatres before having anything meaningful to say about it. I’m writing this because I finally did, and I’m very glad for it.

The main character of the story is Alan Turing, the British mathematician whose only-recently-unclassified efforts to crack the German Enigma machine make him a bona fide WWII hero. Here lies the period thriller promised by the trailer; expertly told and, given the lack of broad twists-and-turns, absolutely riveting in its depiction of code-breaking and the stress it entails. Also present is Alan Turing, the early computer scientist whose fundamental contributions to the theory of computability have made him an icon, with plenty of eponymous prizes and theorems to prove it. His “irascible genius” is communicated by a pitch-perfect performance from Cumberbatch, who weaves difficult concepts (Turing Machines, decryption, algorithmic thinking) into the sort of sharp, narratively-consistent package that all pop science biopics should aspire to. Nit-pickers can nit-pick, but I can’t imagine a better treatment for a general audience. Finally, there’s Alan Turing, the 40-year-old man who was arrested for homosexuality, chemically castrated by the British government, and shamed to the point of suicide. Independently these stories all have merit, but the soul of the film (and true brilliance of the script) lies in their stark incongruity, which its best scenes highlight in damning clarity. Secrecy functions as both villain and protagonist, enabling every victory only to imbibe it thankless, heavy weight. As a work of fiction it’d be a cynical conceit; as a true story it’s indispensable.

I loved this movie in exactly the way I loved last year’s Dallas Buyers Club: it tells an important story in a traditional form, but every beat it hits is just right. If you loved The Theory of Everything you’ll probably love this as a companion piece; if you hated it, this is probably the film you wished it were. You owe it to yourself to see this movie, and you owe it to Turing’s legacy to pay attention.

Mini-ep 1 of 6 for the week at:

See my review on Letterboxd