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Issue #1669      January 21, 2015

Film Review by Peter McLaren

The Imitation Game

The struggle to break the WWII German radio code was crucial for an allied victory in Europe. In the 1930s Polish scientists had decoded some intercepted German messages, but after the war started the top cryptographers of Britain, the US, France and the Soviet Union failed to do so.

Benedict Cumberbatch in his role as Alan Turing.

The messages were encoded by devices known as Enigma machines and could only be decoded by them. In 1939 Britain received a machine from Polish intelligence, but its encryption settings changed every day at midnight. The British had no instruction manual and there were more than 150 trillion possible settings. The Germans believed the Enigma system was unbreakable.

In 1939 Alan Mathison Turing, a 27-year old professor of mathematics from Cambridge, arrived at Britain’s main decoding centre, the Government Code and Cipher School, (known to the public as the Bletchley Park Radio Factory).

By then many vital shipments to Britain from the US were being lost in attacks by U-boats, which carried Enigma machines to decipher radio messages on the location of allied shipping. Britain faced the prospect of starvation.

Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) realised that the Enigma settings could only be revealed by an electronic machine which could carry out a massive number of calculations between receipt of the first intercepted messages at 6am and the midnight deadline for expiry of the settings.

Unfortunately, his convictions were not shared by the Bletchley Park authorities, nor by other members of the Enigma team, who lodged a formal complaint about his behaviour.

Turing in turn complained about his treatment to Commander Deniston, the frosty bureaucrat who directed the centre. Deniston sneered that if Turing didn’t like the way things were done he could complain to the Prime Minister, but Turing took him at his word and contacted Churchill, who then issued directions for Turing to take charge of the group.

When Turing’s decoding machine was built it proved inadequate to decipher messages within the time frame. Deniston used this as vindication for an attempt to shut the machine down and sack Turing, but Turing’s colleagues, who had become converted to his approach, threatened to resign en masse if he was forced out.

The machine finally came good after the team realised that in order to find the day’s settings the machine only had to search for two words which all the messages included. (Guess what they were!)

The subplot thickens

Turing had great difficulty appreciating the emotional response of other people to his statements and actions. He was brilliant at crosswords (and used them with astonishing success to recruit employees), but couldn’t understand metaphors, jokes or double entendres, and consistently accepted the statements of others at face value.

He also had little patience with those who couldn’t understand his ideas (i.e. almost everybody), and his tendency to publicly assess others’ capabilities with blunt honesty, like a maths problem, was interpreted as callous or cruel. He was also gay, and homosexual acts were a criminal offence in Britain.

The Imitation Game depicts the war years in a series of flashbacks from 1951, when Turing was investigated for suspected involvement in espionage. He was cleared, but the investigation revealed homosexual activity, for which he was subsequently brought to trial.

Found guilty, the judge gave him the hideous choice of going to prison for two years or submitting to chemical castration by hormone drugs.

Turing chose the latter because he wanted to continue his highly successful work in computer development, but found to his horror that he lost not only his sex drive but also to a great extent his mental focus.

In 1954, aged 41, he committed suicide. Britain lost its greatest mathematician, who was also an unacknowledged war hero, the conceiver of artificial intelligence and designer of the first modern computers, and arguably the nation’s single most important figure in the field of code-breaking, an essential element in the global struggle to defeat fascism.

According to the film, during the period in which the vicious anti-homosexual law was in force, some 49,000 men were convicted of the “offence”.

Truth and art

The film mainly focuses on the desperate drive to get Turing’s decoding machine to work in the early war years. The Bletchley Park staff later grew to approximately 10,000 members, and by war’s end the establishment contained the greatest store of military intelligence in history.

However, the film does not acknowledge the crucial work carried out before the war by Polish scientists, or the contribution of the small army of engineers and technicians who built Turing’s machine.

Nor does it reveal that in 1942 the Nazis introduced even more complex machines, which caused a delay of almost a year in the Enigma group’s operations.

The film lists the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad, the Normandy invasion, and the battles in the Ardennes as allied achievements to which the Enigma group’s work made a major contribution.

But Turing realised that acting defensively on every message would alert the Nazis to a breach in the Enigma defences. His team spent much of the remainder of the war working out which deciphered messages would maximise the strategic advantage for the allies without alerting the enemy.

The film makes the astounding claim that with the help of the newly-formed MI6 intelligence division the Enigma group concealed from the armed service chiefs the information contained in the other messages.

It seems unlikely that such a situation would have prevailed for long, but if it did, it would explain why details of the Bletchley Park operations were not accessible until 50 years after it was closed down.

The film also claims that Churchill refused to pass on crucial information to the Soviet Union, but that MI6 deceived him by intercepting information sent to the Soviets by an Enigma group member, and substituting information that was more limited but would still assist the Soviets without damaging allied interests.

Again, this may be true, but it’s unlikely that Churchill would not have eventually realised what was going on.

Nevertheless, the film has great performances and is well worth seeing, because of its gripping depiction of the Enigma struggle and the fascinating, tragic story of Alan Turing.

Next article – The “selfless friendship” of the Cuban Five solidarity movement

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