Opening weekend review–Practical math, World War II and The Imitation Game


Review by C.J. Bunce

Math?  When am I going to use that in the real world?

Not every mathematician is eccentric like Alan Turing was.  Yet the standout math wizards that make it to the screen have included the likes of math geniuses John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), and Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), making you think a pattern exists–that quirky is a pre-requisite to mathematical genius.  We discussed before here at Andrew Wiles, the modern-day problem solving genius who solved Fermat’s Theorem.  Wiles seemed teetering on the edge of sanity as he locked himself away to solve a seemingly impossible math riddle, as documented in the brilliant NOVA film, The Proof.

The common tie between Nash, Hawking, and Wiles is the pursuit of the theoretical.  Fermat’s Theorem was merely a puzzle, sitting untouched for hundreds of years with no real-world application.  The average person doesn’t want to take the time to understand the practical significance of math theory, of solving math problems, and theorizing about scientific answers to the many ways we ask the question “why?”  The story of Alan Turing is different, and his story may be a key to spread understanding of what mathematicians can do to a wider reach, as explored in the holiday weekend release The Imitation Game. 

Mark Strong Benedict Cumberbatch

If you’ve studied World War II or seen the Gregory Peck World War II film Twelve O’Clock High, you’ll recall the unrelenting pounding Allied forces were taking in the middle of the war, losing bombers day after day, flying missions with no end in sight to keep up the momentum against Germany.  It was a job that had to succeed–failure was not an option.  While politicians strategized, generals planned raids, and soldiers fought and died, Alan Turing was trying to build a machine that would break the code machine called Enigma that the Nazis were using to communicate.  Hidden in the open, in front of the world, over encrypted radio waves, were instructions between German commanders and field forces on all their movements.  It’s the practical nature of what Turing accomplished that might sell some on the potential relevance of math.  The fact that his “Turing machine” was the predecessor to the modern computer should attract anyone to this fascinating story.

he Imitation Game in many respects is a good old-fashioned World War II biopic, a spy movie, and a mystery.  Genre favorite Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, brilliantly so, and will be an easy contender for top honors at Oscar time.  Fans of the BBC’s Sherlock will be familiar with Cumberbatch’s ease of playing that confident but blunt problem solver.  Here Cumberbatch adds tics and oddities reflecting Turing’s life struggles in a way that will cause many to hold his performance in high regard alongside Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and Geoffrey Rush in Shine.  It’s a well-deserved comparison.

Keira Knightley, as Turing’s fellow codebreaker at the Bletchley facility many anglophiles will know from the series Bletchley Circle if from nowhere else, is on her way to nudge out the likes of Bullock, Portman, Lawrence, and Roberts as the next most sought-after dramatic lead.  Always engaging, always playing characters smart and real, Knightley’s real-life codebreaker Joan Clarke goes in a different direction than most female counterparts to the quirky male genius trope in recent TV and film.  Although we’re sure there are bits of Hollywood-esque tidying up of the real story going on, the result is a crisp thriller where the stakes are literally the fate of the world.  Those stakes contribute some weighty gravity to the efforts of the “crossword puzzle experts” and professors brought together for the impossible task that is the crux of the story.

Charles Dance Benedict Cumberbatch

We’re also reminded, by a ten year old asking questions to his mother throughout our viewing, that every new World War II movie is a way to educate the young about the most important historical event worthy of study that the world has known.  When a kid must ask “Did we win that war?” you know we need as many movies like The Imitation Game as The Weinstein brothers and their peers can churn out.  The Imitation Game includes Turing’s life as a gay man in an intolerant 1940s-1950s England, and it’s presented in a way that helps explain Turing’s character.  The fact Turing never received recognition for his contributions is a real tragedy, and his treatment in his final years its own reason for a reminder of this historical figure’s story.

Excellent character studies can also be found in Turing’s commander, played by Charles Dance (Ghostbusters II, For Your Eyes Only, Bleak House, Gosford Park), fellow codebreaker Hugh Alexander, played by Matthew Goode (Ozymandias in Watchmen), and MI 6 operative Mark Strong (who played Sinestro in Green Lantern and villain in Sherlock Holmes, among many other recent genre roles).  If you’ve ever wondered how Strong would be as James Bond as originally envisioned by Ian Fleming, this is your movie.

An exciting, powerful film, The Imitation Game is now in theaters.




Leave a Reply