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The Turing Test

The Imitation

Plot Overview

To some enigmatic International Morse code streaming gibberish faintly in the back­ground, “The Imitation Game” fades in with an inter­title announcing: 1951 Manchester, England, and we see a man nervously sitting at a table in a room as if awaiting inter­ro­gation. A deep voice off-screen asks: “Are you paying attention? I am in control, because I know things that you do not know.” The man seems to be flashing back to an earlier inter­ro­gation at British MI-6 Head­quarters. Owing to the title and that some games—a lot of games—are played with the participants unaware of hidden infor­mation, I suspect we the audience do not have the usual God's-eye view of reality, but it's being filtered by the man at the table.

Alan Turing has been robbed.” A couple bobbies sent to investi­gate are summarily dismissed (“Leave me alone”) by this professor at King's Cambridge University in his trashed flat that resembles the lair of a mad scientist. One calls him an “insuffer­able sod,” but Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) opines, “I think Alan Turing's hiding some­thing.

Now we're back to 1939 and the newspaper headline reads: "WAR DECLARED." We follow Turing traveling by train to Bletchley Radio Manufacturing where he's inter­viewed for a position. His qualifications include being a mathe­matician at Cambridge. A prodigy of a published author at 27, he's not a pacifist (“I'm agnostic about violence,”) and he's “one of the best mathematicians in the world.” Never­the­less, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) is about to dismiss this insuffer­able sod for his cock­sure attitude, when Turing utters the word Enigma. “That's what you're doing here,” he tells them. “You're trying to break the Enigma machine. … You need me a lot more than I need you.” He mutters, “Polish intelligence smuggled it out of Berlin.

As he begins work we find out what kind of machine he's up against. “The Germans change its settings every day at midnight.” At 6:00 a.m. they'll start trans­mitting their encoded messages of the day giving the code breakers 18 hours to decipher them before they're changed again. Turing spurns the other team members, saying “I'm afraid these men would only slow me down.” Mean­while the encoded messages keep coming in. Some of the members manage to decode snippets by “analyzing the frequency of letter distribution.” How­ever, doing the math on the 159 million million possible settings, they conclude it would take 10 men 20 million years to break a code they'll need in twenty minutes to stop the German attacks.

Returning to 1951 Manchester, Det. Nock comes up with zilch on Turing's military records, wondering, “Why would a math professor have his military records classified?

Back to Bletchley, and Turing wonders, “What if only a machine can defeat another machine?” The Commander doesn't like the idea and forbids Turing to pursue it. Turing goes over his head and gains control of the whole project (“Churchill's put Alan in charge.”)

Back at Manchester the Detective tries another tack and asks Turing, “Popular at school, were you?” Now we go to a third time­line at boarding school in 1928—Alan would have been 16—and we follow him being mercilessly bullied, befriending one other boy Chris­topher Morcom (Jack Bannon), playing at encryption with him on notes they pass back and forth until it turns into for­bid­den love. The clue­less head­master calls Turing into his office on an unrelated matter and mentions his best friend Christopher whom Turing adamantly denies being friends with at all.

Back at 1940 Bletchley, Turing now in charge purges his staff and recruits new talent including wonder woman Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who can beat male prodigies in their own field, at 25 remain loyal to her parents' marital aspirations for her, and be a unifying feminine influence on the boys in the lab. With his new staff on his side and a bit of good luck, Turing builds a machine to crack the Nazi codes, then analyzes the data and in cahoots with MI-6 feeds just enough of it to high command to thwart the Nazis with­out raising their suspicions. Although he didn't single handedly win the war, he did shorten in by a couple of years. Hey, it's a wonder­ful life.

At Manchester he asks the detective to play the imitation game with him. Not mentioned in the movie is real life Turing's 1950 paper describing what is now called the “Turing Test” in which an unknown entity in a box communicates by teletype with the questioner out­side to see if he can distinguish whether the ‘person’ inside is human or machine, this to establish artificial intelligence. Following the Man­chester inter­ro­gation, Turing challenges the detective to judge whether he is a man or a machine? A monster? A homo­sexual? All of the above? I point out that it would be easy for the detective to peruse Turing's school records, so there's no point lying about that. If the detective could discover the goods on Turing practising gross indecency—which comes up—, then it's in his best interests to embellish his classified war record in his favor, just as he lied about his school friendship. The audience is supposed to pay attention to the movie in order to judge rightly. If he does admit to being “a poofter,” will his putative war service mitigate his punishment?


The Polish have long been known for their mathematical genius that being theoretical they've been largely unable to capitalize on, the poor country lacking the resources for engineering applications. Other richer countries get rich off their research. The early Enigma machines were first cracked by Polish mathe­maticians Jerzy Rozycki, Henryk Zygalski and Marian Rejewski. By the start of the war, they'd been breaking Enigma for over six years. They built the first machine to do it, called a bomba in 1938, but with increasing German sophistication, they no longer had the where­withal to succeed so handed over their work to the British, along with an Enigma machine captured from the Wehrmacht. Four British senior code-breakers Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Stuart Milner-Barry and Hugh Alexander wrote to Churchill in 1941 over Denniston's head complaining about the shortage of staff and praising Edward Travis. In February 1942, Denniston was demoted and transferred out of Bletchley, and his successor Edward Travis transformed the procedures.

A critical problem occurred when the Germans started using an eight section Enigma rather than six once their field units were so equipped. The Bletchley bombe simply lacked the computing power to crack it in the allotted time. Some­body did some thinking outside the box when he realized the German weather reports (“Weather today is clear. Rain in the evening. Heil Hitler.”) were sent out using only six sections to accommodate the lesser equipped stations. Once the bombe gave them those first six settings, the other two were a piece of cake.

The information gained was a treasure trove to British high command, but they had to be careful not to tip their hand to the Germans as to where they were getting it. When the Germans decided one day to bomb a city—I think it was Coving­ton—other than London for a change, and Churchill learned of their plan through broken Enigma messages, he decided not to send them a warning—other than to call for an extra fire brigade that night—so the German planes wouldn't wonder how come the city was all hunkered down.

If the movie gives unwarranted credit for too much to Turing, it does use his personal communications problems—he had a hard time figuring out what people meant by what they said—to illustrate human communi­cation. Our talking is not solely a matter of logic but requires inter­pret­ation. For example, when Joan's parents didn't want her living and working with men because it was “indecorous”, what they really meant was to protect her virtue. When at the canteen one of the women smiled at a man at another table and then completely ignored him after­wards, both she and he realized it was a come-on. Paul Dobransky M.D., in his book The Secret Psychology of How We Fall in Love, gives the same method for a woman to indicate her interest in a man. It's not a robotic message of: Oh she doesn't look like she's interested anymore, so it must be negatory, no means no. Go over and talk to her.

At the end of his interrogation, Det. Nock asks Turing if a machine thinks as a man does, and Turing replies maybe depending on the machine, they probably think differently just as people do, having different tastes and preferences. Actually according to the Turing Complete Computing Algorithm, all of our digital computers can equivalently follow a string—a rather long string—of but four simple computing rules, so they all do think alike. Turing's disingenuous reply seems to be more political—to honor diversity—than scientific.

Man himself is a sentient being having the divine spark in his soul, (Gen. 1:27-28) “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply ….” Part of that "divinity" includes male-female sexuality, and for what it's worth, one of the code copy girls in the movie provided a key to breaking Enigma by sussing out what a German was saying to his girl­friend on the Enigma machine.

Production Values

“The Imitation Game” (2014) was directed by Norwegian-born Morten Tyldum in this his first English film. It was written by Graham Moore, adapted from mathema­tician Andrew Hodges's 1983 book, Alan Turing: The Enigma. It stars Benedict Cumber­batch and Keira Knightley, with Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and (especially strong) Matthew Goode in supporting roles. Cumber­batch played his gangly, nerdy, troubled character to the hilt, although I think the real portly Alan Turing was more affable than this film version, if no less troubled. Alex Lawther is out­standing as young Turing the school­boy. He delivers a memorable performance in a challenging role.

MPAA rated it PG–13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking. There were no sex scenes in it and only mild swearing, but it is not a kids' film, as the subject matter is serious. It contains B&W war archive footage. The simple but terrific score of Alexandre Desplat nicely complements the picture. The characters seem to be transported from the 21st century trying to fit into history. They are young and chipper, none the worse for the wear on the historic­ally daunting task.

Come to think of it, while in Junior High in the 1950s, I built my own little baby brother to their bombe machine. It was some wheels mounted on perf board, which could be turned to decimal numbers, and it would decode them into binary displayed in lights below. True, it was not going to break any “unbreak­able” Nazi code, but as a matter of scale, neither could the machine in the movie, which took up but one rack of space. The real electro­­mechanical bombe occupied a whole building, and once it was running the noise was horrendous scattering the occupants like an ant colony hit by an insecticide bomb. Fortunately for us movie goers the one they showed was suit­ably scaled down, kind of sexy actually, chugging along.

The Morse code was actual, not just simulated, random letter groupings that were copied accurately on the film by the Bletchley worker girls. The telegraph key doing the sending was shown with but one index finger pushing down from above, not the de rigueur three-finger grip. But in a story conveyed by a poof, one could expect the telegrapher's fingers to be a little light on the key. And in a story about digital computers, the person telling this one is not operating on all five digits.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

“The Imitation Game” characters held my sympathy when I first viewed it, shrugging off any historical inaccuracies. When I thought back on it and realized how thoroughly I'd been snookered, that was worth a few good belly laughs. I ended up thinking with sadness on a very troubled mathema­tician. A movie that can produce such a range of emotions, and is well made, it's going to get a high rating from me. It allows the viewer freedom to make up his own mind as to reaction, but one really needs to pay attention, not just coast along.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Decent action scenes. Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years with guidance. Special effects: Shoddy CGI in war foootage. Video Occasion: Fit For a Friday Evening. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Four stars out of five.