The Imitation Game

Paul Greenberg
Posted: May 22, 2015 12:01 AM
The Imitation Game
How appropriate. The popular movie "The Imitation Game" about the life of Alan Turing -- the British cryptographer who broke the "unbreakable" German code during the Second World War -- turns out to be only an imitation of his real story, whatever that is. For we may never know, as full of deceptions within deceptions, ironies within ironies, as his life -- and death -- were.

Alan Turing was a mathematical genius, persecuted homosexual, suicide, someone who went through all the motions of being typical and inwardly was anything but, with so hyper-rational a mind he would strike the rest of us as irrational, a prescient explorer of the mind-machine symbiosis who not only foresaw but played a formative role in the computational future we now live in....

All that and more is reduced to a sentimental movie. It even imposes a conventional boy-meets-girl plot on Turing's life, and nothing could be further from an attempt at an honest portrayal of his story, whatever it may be. We may never know. He kept his secrets even beyond his death.

"The Imitation Game" is well named, as it is but a sugar-coated imitation -- a foray into Oliver Stone territory somewhere in the shadowland between Based on a True Story and a pack of cinematically staged lies, neither fiction nor history but box office designed to attract the credulous young.

Those who see the movie without knowing anything about its subject may carry its images with them the rest of their lives, never having heard of Alan Turing before and never again thinking of him apart from the impression this movie leaves, like a coat of irremovable film forever over their eyes.

One of the better if not the best treatment of the mystery that was Alan Turing's life is a dense 588-page biography titled "Alan Turing: The Enigma." Written by Andrew Hodges, it came out in 1983 as the curtains were being pulled back on his role in the development of a counter-machine (code-named Ultra) that was used to decode the German code machine Enigma. The math detailed in the book is far beyond me; it took me till the Basic Officers' Course at Fort Sill just to realize that gunnery was only basic trig.

The story of the Turing Machine -- a name given to one invention after another as he produced them -- is full of ironies piled atop ironies, secrets hiding secrets. Once his counter-Enigma machine (still another Turing Machine) had worked, the Allies knew the location of every German U-boat in the North Atlantic, but how act on all that intelligence without the Germans realizing their code had been broken? Without letting them know that we knew what they knew and knew that they knew?

And so Allied convoys had to be sacrificed, and German bombers allowed to reduce historic English cities like Coventry to rubble in order to keep the secret safe -- even if British lives weren't.

Here was an even greater challenge than breaking the German code -- not letting the enemy know it had been broken. So every time the Allies acted on this vast store of German secrets, a conventional reason for their decision had to be invented and somehow conveyed to German intelligence without being obvious about it. A false trail had to be established and made to look real from Berlin.

To quote Malcolm Muggeridge, this elaborate charade had to be maintained by amassing a host of fictive reasons for Allied successes -- from El Alamein to Normandy -- like the work "of agents, the suborning of informants, the sending of messages written in invisible ink, the masquerading, the dressing-up, the secret transmissions, and the examining of the contents of waste-paper baskets...." All of which "turned out to be largely cover for this other source; as one might keep some old-fashioned business in rare books going in order to be able, under cover of it, to do a thriving trade in pornography and erotica."

Secrets within secrets, unending ironies atop unending ironies. Back in Berlin, the chief of the SS -- Heinrich Himmler -- sneered at the British for employing homosexuals in their intelligence services, unaware that one named Turing was playing a key role in his doom. And that of the Third Reich.

After the war, Alan Turing would then find himself enmeshed in much the same homophobic stupidities, for the Cold War had begun and a vast national-security complex made homosexuals not just suspect in the West but the subject of pseudo-scientific psychiatry. Turing would be convicted of "gross indecency" and subjected to a series of "medical treatments" that amounted to chemical castration. Though it was not he but his society that was guilty of gross indecency.

Then, when the worst of his travails seemed past, they found Alan Turing's body in his room. Another mystery. Cyanide poisoning, the inquest concluded -- clearly suicide. Or was it? Alan Turing's mother always refused to believe it, and devoted the rest of her long life to proving it was an accident -- a result of his experiments with cyanide. At last, here was one aspect of Alan Turing's story that was no mystery at all: a mother's natural instinct to defend her boy's reputation.

This much about Alan Turing is no mystery, either: that he was a genius, and genius is of an entirely different order of magnitude than just superior intelligence, and will always be a mystery to the rest of us, like where a Newton or Einstein could have come from. And an Alan Turing.