Saving Alan Turing from His Friends by Christian Caryl | The New York Review of Books

Should we expect accuracy from movies based on real historical events? I am conflicted on this question. On the one hand, I love great historical fiction (on screen and off) and I expect a great story even if the real events were not as spicy. On the other hand I know that it is through movies that most Americans get their history. But where I definitely draw the line is when dramatic license turns into irresponsible distortion. In this category I put movies like JFK and docudramas like The Sons of Liberty. On The Imitation Game I’m torn.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

I was fortunate to have seen the movie before I knew about Alan Turing’s personal life. I was somewhat familiar with his most important contributions to science and technology, but I knew little else about Turing and Bletchley Park, where the British decoding project took place. If you want to go to a thought-provoking movie about an unsung hero, I would highly recommend it. But if you want the true story of what happened at Bletchley Park during WWII, you won’t find it in this movie. I enjoyed the movie and would recommend it despite its inaccuracies, but some experts on Turing are understandably upset with the movie because it “reduc[ed] him to a caricature of the tortured genius” and tarnished his reputation by portraying him as weak and awkward. “The filmmakers see their hero above all as a martyr of a homophobic Establishment, and they are determined to lay emphasis on his victimhood.”

Here a summary of the main inaccuracies according to Christian Caryle:

  • Rather than an awkward and robotic genius as portrayed in the movie, Caryle claims that Turing could be charming and had a sense of humor.
  • Rather than a “tragic outsider” in “a blinkered society,” Turing was a “willing participant in a collective enterprise.”
  • Rather than a small isolated group of codebreakers that that achieved no results in the first two years the group “was doing productive work from the very beginning of the war.” In addition, the group was much larger than the small cohort seen in the movie.
  • The director Tyldum and screenwriter made up the subplot with the interaction between John Cairncross (the Soviet spy) and Turing.
  • While “Turing was convicted on homosexuality charges in 1952″ and underwent “’therapy’ involving female hormones,” there is no evidence that it led to his suicide as implied by the film. In fact, his death was probably not the result of a suicide at all.

While it’s important to know how Turing was misrepresented in the movie, I still think that it is worthwhile to see The Imitation Game. I didn’t see the movie as a caricature of a tortured, weak, misfit, I saw the movie as a morality play confronting us with the all too real ostracism and abuse of those who are different. And Turing’s genius and abuse as a gay man were real enough!

To see Caryle’s full review go here:

Saving Alan Turing from His Friends by Christian Caryl | The New York Review of Books.

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