Monday, January 19, 2015

The Imitation Game: Oscar Formula 101

"Here's a surefire way to point a movie toward an Oscar or two: make the subject a gay guy who is persecuted for his sexuality."

"You could pump that up by making him an aloof intellectual, brilliant but socially inept, you know, like Holmes in Sherlock. That type has a big following currently. Maybe we could even get Benedict Cumberbatch to play the part. It would bring in all the self-styled 'Cumber-bitches.'"

"We should make it the type of thing that appeals to that whole PBS/BBC crowd. No swearing."

"Or only just a little, to punch up the most dramatic scenes."

"No sex."

"We could have a few titillating references to sex organs."

"No violence. Well, maybe a few overheated scuffles."

"No violence? Wait a minute, can a movie score an Oscar nomination without conflict and violence?"

"Instead of interpersonal violence, we could have a war. The Brits are daft about World War II, you know."

"That's a great plan. Anytime the action gets boring we could cut in a lot of old war footage. The old codgers can't get enough of that stuff."

"You know there was a guy like that in British history—a scary brilliant guy who happened to be gay. He was a big hero of the British code-breaking effort during the war, but afterward he was persecuted by the local police for making homosexual advances in public. He's been in the news lately because he was recently pardoned by the queen."

"I'm sure he's resting easier for that. What's the name of this persecuted hero?"

"Alan Turing. His biography was written by Andrew Hodges in 1983."

"Maybe we could get that guy from Chicago, Graham Moore, to adapt it for the screen. He has the Hollywood touch."

"We need someone for the female audience to identify with."

"Like a brainy but beautiful mathematician. Oh, and she has to be well-adjusted and bold, as well."

"We could get a really beautiful actress like Keira Knightley, and then play down her looks, as if she were plain. Heh heh."

And so one day Graham Moore finished reading Hodges' biography of Turing and faced his problem: how to condense a 768-page scholarly tome into a sensational, award-winning script.

And Mr. Moore said to himself, "It seems to me there were three big periods in Turing's life. His teens were messed up because other kids teased him mercilessly, not for being gay, but for being so damn smart, for being different. Then there's the heroic period when he was working on code-breaking at Bletchley Park and saved the Allies' bacon by figuring out what the Germans were going to do before they did it. And then the later shameful period when he was persecuted for living openly as a homosexual, which was then against British law. Maybe I could add some excitement by scrambling these three periods, and throw in a bunch of war scenes as well. Figuring out what is going on would give the viewers a sort of puzzle to solve, like the puzzle of the German Enigma codes."

Thus cinematic history was made. Mr. Moore's script won awards and nominations galore. Benedict Cumberbatch delivered a raw, heart-breaking performance that has everyone performing obeisance. Keira Knightley cast a sweet glow on the whole effort. Critics' reviews and box office receipts were equally gratifying. The LGBT group was ecstatic. Even Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, and Robert Gates, one time Secretary of Defense, gave the movie a big thumbs up. Everyone was happy.

Keira Knightly, Benedict Cumberbatch making brilliant deductions
while other members of the team observe
Everyone, that is, except those nasty folks who are attached to historical truth. Several researchers have been at pains to point out that it didn't happen like that.

To begin with, Turing did not break the German Enigma encryption device alone. The code-breaking effort went on for several years and hundreds of people were involved, both in England and other Allied countries.

But the most striking divergence from the truth was depicting Turing as being socially maladapted, having no friends and no sense of how to work cooperatively. Most researchers agree that while Turing had conspicuous eccentricities, he was seen by his colleagues as being affable, working well with others, and having a good sense of humor. I mean think about it: Aren't gay men generally both friendly and ironic? I'm not an expert, but the gay men I've met have been exceptionally cordial and sensitive, and inclined to see humor in life as well.

Mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing
It is important to note, and accurate, I think, that Turing's sexual preference had little effect on his mental preferences. If he tended to be reclusive, it was because he was obsessed by his research. In my reading of history, I have observed that all sorts of intellectuals, artists and scientists, might also be homosexuals; it's sort of irrelevant.

The final blow that really gives the lie to the whole production is that Turing may not have committed suicide after all. After he was convicted, he was given a choice between prison and so-called "chemical castration," which is basically taking estrogen. In the movie, the treatment makes him too sick to think straight and causes him to commit suicide in desperation. In real life, Turing did innovative work in mathematical biology during his treatment, using himself as a subject, and his treatment ended fourteen months before his death at age 41. The biographer Hodges contends that Turing intentionally ate a poisoned apple, but the editor of Turing's own papers and Director of the Turing Archive, Jack Copeland, says the death may have been accidental, caused by the cyanide fumes produced by one of Turing's experiments; he says the coroner's investigation was faulty.

All the quibblers for truthfulness think that a more accurate rendering of history would have been more interesting. They posit that Turing's real personality was even richer and more heroic than Cumberbatch's character.

But you and I know that nuance does not sell. The Hollywood formula works like a charm if it is done skillfully, and this movie was expertly made. By sensationalizing Turing's story, The Imitation Game brought Alan Turing the level of attention he deserves.