Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday Review: The Imitation Game

Barely an imitation

By Chuck Smythe

I finished watching The Imitation Game (2014, directed by Morten Tyldum) with mixed feelings. [The film is a biographical drama about mathematician Alan Turing and the World War II cracking of the Nazis’ Enigma code.]
    On the one hand, I had just seen Benedict Cumberbatch play a riveting portrayal of a man with a profound emotional handicap, something like an extremely high-functioning autistic. He was absolutely convincing in the role. On the other hand, we are talking about Alan Turing, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. Could such a man have done all that he did? I was also uneasy with the cliché – the mathematician with emotional intelligence in single digits has been a stock character in the popular imagination for generations. Fortunately, the film credits said it was based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges, so I decided to go to the source.
    I actually wanted to see the movie because of Turing’s reputation. Most of us who have been involved with mathematics and computers are broadly familiar with his achievements. Early in the film, he is complimented on the recent publication of his research paper “On Computable Numbers.” This paper is in fact one of the more important papers in the philosophy of mathematics from the twentieth century, only somewhat less important than the famous proof of Kurt Gödel that mathematics is incomplete. In the sort of crude terms I can understand, Turing’s paper answers a question posed by David Hilbert: can all mathematical questions be answered? The answer is “no.” Of more interest to many of us is the way Turing answered the question. In logical effect, he invented the modern computer, then proved that it could solve every logical or mathematical problem that could be solved. Finally, he found a problem that he could prove could not be solved by his computer. Q.E.D.
    That last step, of course, is almost an anticlimax after those that came before! Turing himself probably thought so, and after the war dedicated his career to building some of the first computers. He believed that brains must operate on the same logical principles as computers and was greatly interested in the new field of artificial intelligence. His most widely known idea is his Imitation Game, a.k.a. “the Turing Test” for machine intelligence: talk to a human and a computer, both by teletype to conceal irrelevant clues. If, after a reasonable effort, you can’t decide which is the human and which the machine, the latter must be presumed intelligent. The Turing Test has generated an avalanche of argument over the decades. The film makes no mention of this, its title notwithstanding.

    Then there was the Enigma project, the subject of the film. Turing was recruited early in the war to help crack the Nazis’ military codes. His team succeeded in doing this, thereby contributing critically to the defeat of the Third Reich. That part is portrayed somewhat factually, though the constant attempts by military authorities to shut the program down, and the scene of Turing trying to physically defend his machines from the Military Police, are largely Hollywood. In fact, early in the war Turing had written to Churchill, complaining of interference by the Brass. Churchill backed him up, so the project remained largely untouchable.
    My interest in the film was partly in learning about Enigma; my study of Turing was before now almost entirely in books on mathematics and computer science, which mentioned code breaking only in passing. All this is by way of explaining why I thought it surprising that the film portrays Turing as so dysfunctional.

Well, it turns out he wasn’t. No doubt he was an extreme character. His dress was beyond indifferent: once given a bit of rope to repair a broken suspender, he wore it for years rather than buying new braces. He was blatantly homosexual in a time and place that made it personally dangerous (and ultimately fatal). He was so politically naïve that he honestly expected reason to carry the day in political debate. He was a hopelessly incompetent administrator. A marathoner a generation before it was cool. Utterly indifferent to social rules and conventions.
    But the film makes him far more deranged than that. It makes much of the unexpected death of a boyhood friend (who was concealing a potentially fatal medical problem). The film has Turing renounce the friendship posthumously. In fact, he remained a close friend of the family for the rest of his life. The film portrays him as ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Nazi threat; he was nothing of the kind. The film makes him a pariah among his colleagues because of his emotional incomprehension. He is shown, for example, as unable to understand “would you like to go out for lunch?” In these and other ways, the film portrays a man fundamentally different from the real Turing, who was in fact regarded with slightly awed affection as “The Professor.” (The film does show a softening toward this affection in the end.)
    All this raises an ethical question for me. Just how much artistic license should be given to a biographical film? Some distortions are unavoidable in compressing a life, or even part of one, into a couple of hours, and surely a few others need to be tolerated for dramaturgy. But to utterly revise the character and history of the subject seems profoundly disrespectful to him – and misleading to any audience interested in the history. This argument would apply to any biographical subject, of course. But when the subject is as historically significant as Turing, we go from revisionist biography to revisionist history, almost a political crime. And I wonder why? Did they want a tour-de-force portrayal of autism? Was Turing the emotional imbecile thought more interesting than the real man? What is the point here?
    Thoughts from the fearless reader?

Copyright © 2015 by Chuck Smythe


  1. Good review and interesting questions

  2. Bob Boldt's comment on Facebook was so horrifically apt, I am copying it here:

    Whether the film is true to life in its details or not, there is no denying the historical fact that the British society drove Turing to his death – the very man whose contribution to the war effort arguably was essential to the Allied victory over Germany. The fact that the Lilliputians brought down a man with nearly godlike powers of reasoning, analysis, and interpretation is one of the greatest losses to science since the censure of Galileo by the intellectual and spiritual pygmies of his day.
        I am reminded of an equally brilliant mind of an earlier time also brought down for the "crime that dare not speak its name," Oscar Wilde.
        Stephen Fry's address on Youtube
        Why are observant Christians scared stupid by the specter of homosexuality?

  3. Yes. I read De Profundis many years ago. Not a fun read. I have no wisdom about the history of Christendom on this subject. Some societies I've studied accept it, some don't. In my historical ignorance, I'm inclined to blame St. Paul, who created so much of Christianity's sexual angst.
    The complexity of the Brit position is shown by another Churchill tale: responding to a bloviator celebrating "the great traditions of the British Navy". Churchill summarized these traditions as "rum, sodomy, and the lash".

    1. Regarding what you have said about Paul, Christianity, and sex, you should know that a central component of Christian marriage is "free and frequent sex". It is a myth that authentic Christians are sexually repressed. In fact, it is the opposite. Moreover, a sign that you are not in a Christian marriage, as God has designed, is that you are not having lots of sex.

      Sexual intimacy and ecstasy is to be reserved for the context of marriage (Gen 2:24, Ex 22:16, S of S 1-8, Matt 5: 27-28, 1 Cor 6: 9-10, Heb 13:4, Etc.) because it is a critical component to the couple's commitment, unity, and oneness. Once married, the couple should regularly engage in frequent and intense sex as it will serve to not only bring them serious pleasure but will also reinforce their multifaceted oneness (spiritual, emotional, and physical). The sexual pleasures associated with Christian marriage are to be extreme and intoxicating for the couple. Even a less than informed reading of The Song of Solomon demonstrates this strongly. Many other texts speak to this as well including Proverbs 5:19 where the Hebrew word for "exhilarated" (NASV) is "shagah" which carries the concepts of "ravished", "intoxicated", and "to reel" in its meaning. According to the text this type of satisfaction is in the context of a husband enjoying his wife's body, "let her breasts satisfy you at all times, be exhilarated always with her love" (Prov 5:19).

      Regarding Paul specifically, he actually states that both wives and husbands have sexual authority over each other's body (1Cor 7:4) and this authority over each other's body helps create the foundation for free and frequent sex. In fact Paul goes on to say that sex should be so frequent and prioritized between the couple that its regularity should only be halted for concentrated times of prayer together (1Cor 7:5). Times of prayer the couple will surely need forging a life together in a fallen and difficult world. It should be noted that the fact that the wife (a woman) had (and has) sexual authority over her husband's (a man's) body in Christian marriage was significantly empowering for women 2000 years ago at the time of Paul's first epistle to Corinth.

    2. Patrick, I look forward to seeing what Chuck has to say about your counter to his reference to Paul's creating "so much of Christianity's sexual angst."
          Yours is the first reference I have ever seen to "a central component of Christian marriage['s being] 'free and frequent sex'." While I remembered the Song of Solomon's unleashed eroticism (but usually interpreted as metaphor for the faithful's affair with God), I had to check your references to the New Testament.
          Going by what I found in Matt 5: 27-28, 1 Cor 6: 9-10, and Heb 13:4, I have to wonder whether you're serious.
          Matt 5: 27-28 states [quoting Jesus]: "You have heard that it is said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' / But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
          1 Cor 6: 9-10 states: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, / Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God."
          And Heb 13:4 states: "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge."
          Huh? Are you having us on?
        However, your references to 1 Cor 7:4 & 7:5, do say roughly what you claim, except 7:4 also says that "the wife does not have authority over her own body...and likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body" – a most curious view. And I wonder how well 7:5's "not depriving one another" can actually work in practice in light of 7:4's "the husband does [have authority over his wife's body]," and "the wife does [have authority over her husband's body]." At least Paul seems to support marriage equality, though, again, whose exclusive authority is more likely to prevail in a male-dominated society?
          Further, I googled on your wording, "free and frequent sex a central component of Christianity," and discovered prominently that evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll and his wife noted in their 2012 book, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, that "the biblical pattern for Christian marriage is free and frequent sex," so, of course, I'm wondering whether that might be your source for the claim.
          But, as one reader comments after two readings of the book (he says): "Chapter 10 is about adventure in the bedroom, with the conclusion being that almost everything on the list that a husband desire is consistent with Scripture. The typical husband isn’t as blameless as Chapters 9 and 10 imply. Driscoll notes that 'the biblical pattern of Christian marriage is free and frequent sex.' The problem is his interpretation of 'free.' From a woman’s perspective, his interpretation could lead to women's being abused and men's being tempted."
          Thank you, Patrick. This has been most...informative.

    3. Morris, if you will look again at what I said you will see that I did NOT use those passages to support the fact that Christian marriage is characterized by strong sexual relations between the husband and wife.

      I used those passages to support the perspective that SEXUAL INTIMACY IS RESERVED FOR THE CONTEXT OF MARRIAGE, which is exactly what those passages teach. I said "Sexual intimacy and ecstasy is to be reserved for the context of marriage (Gen 2:24, Ex 22:16, S of S 1-8, Matt 5: 27-28, 1 Cor 6: 9-10, Heb 13:4, Etc.) because it is a critical component to the couple's commitment, unity, and oneness". The passages you mention that I mentioned teach exactly that.

      In Matt 5:27-28 Jesus condemns not only adultery (sex with someone who is not your husband or wife), He also condemned lust in the heart underscoring that God's concerns over sexual purity are much more than just the physical act. That even intense sexual thoughts for and about someone are reserved for marriage. In 1Cor 6:9-10 both fornication (sex with someone who is not married) and adultery (sex with someone who is not your spouse) are both condemned underscoring that sex is reserved for marriage. In Hebrews 13:4 Paul is reminding us sex outside of marriage (fornication and adultery) is against God's law but marriage is honorable among believers and unbelievers alike and the marriage bed is a place where sexual activity is not wrong underscoring that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage.

      In 1Cor 7:5 the phrase "stop depriving one another" is a recognition that couples are not always equally yearning for sex at every opportunity and Paul is reminding married couples that God's perspective is that couples should be moving towards each other sexually when the couples are not equally in the same mood sexually instead of moving away from each other.

      Next, Much scholarship supports that The Song of Solomon should be understood both metaphorically in terms of Israel AND specifically in terms of the relationship between a bride and her bridegroom.

      Finally there is nothing magical about the phrase "free and frequent" sex. It is just used at times by Evangelical Christians. What's important is that it is a biblical concept. Moreover, it has nothing to do with abuse of women. (And that is certainly not how Driscoll meant it). Real Christians rightly condemn the abuse of anyone in all its forms, including women, if not especially women. The word free is used to underscore that sex is to be both voluntary and creative.

      Morris, your last 2 lines hurt a little bit. "Thank you, Patrick. This has been most...informative". Friend, I thought we were beyond that type of cheekiness. Perhaps you just meant it in good fun and not from a snide, condescending standpoint. I hope that's the case.

    4. "It is better to marry than to burn...: 1 Corinthians 7:9. The surrounding passages, and other Biblical texts, make it clear that the holiest path is abstinence, and marriage is recommended only for those who cannot or will not follow this path.
      Over two millennia, this has been taken with various degrees of seriousness. The Victorian era was particularly problematic. Remember "Lie back and think of the Empire"? A great deal of the mental illness that Freud described was plainly the product of sexual repression. My own religious education had very little to say about married sex, but reviled the unmarried sort. My Catholic friends reported to me that theirs was far more vehement on the topic, and led to many Catholics that could not manage a healthy attitude toward even married sex.
      I'll admit, Patrick, that your screed above is the only time in my life that I've seen a Christian enthusiastically endorse sex on religious grounds; the usual attitude has been that of St. Paul. "Well, if you really must..."

    5. Patrick, I regret that my misunderstanding of your second paragraph led to the uncertainty [as to whether you were serious - or had given the wrong chapter and verse citations] that I attempted to express in sincere good fun with the ellipses preceding "information." I am sorry it came across as hurtful.
          I see now that the citations went ONLY with the first fifth of that paragraph, and I associated them with the last four-fifths, so I felt set up to read Pauline material positively supporting those fifths' contentions. Mea culpa.

    6. Morris and Chuck,

      Thanks Morris. No worries.

      Chuck (Part 1 due to space),

      Since I don't have a reply option under your last comment above, I will reply here.

      Chuck, the other verses in 1 Corinthians (and in the entire Bible) do not teach that abstinence is more holy than marriage. It is not Paul's position or the Christian position (since the two are synonymous) that abstinence is more holy than marriage. Paul's attitude toward marriage is not "well if you really must…" and that has never been the position of the Christian Church.

      In terms of abstinence, a theme of Paul's teaching in 1Cor 7 is that some are given the gift of celibacy. Paul personally wishes that others had that gift. Why? Because those who would have that gift would be able to devote more time to the work Paul was doing. But the gift of celibacy is not any more special than other gifts God gives to His people (including the gift of marriage). Paul acknowledges this in 1Cor 7:7. The verse you mention at the top of your comment is a recognition that if one has not been given the gift of celibacy, as evidenced by one's desire for another, than that person should not wait, he or she should move forward in marriage. The fact that God has not given that person the self-control of celibacy is an obvious sign that person should marry if she or he is able.

      In addition to Paul telling us "let marriage be held in honor among all" (Heb 13:4, NASV) we know from many other passages the high place that marriage holds for God's people. In fact it is God's primary design for His people. We see this from several angles in the Bible. Here are three:

      1) Prior to the Fall, prior to sin entering the world, while Adam was in a state of perfection, God determined that Adam should be in relationship with another human being, that he should not be alone (Gen 2:18). So God created Eve and she became Adam's wife (Gen 2: 24-25). Marriage in Christian theology is considered a creation ordinance. Work is another creation ordinance. Creation ordinances are God's ideal for humankind (this side of eternity) because they were established prior to the Fall. Man and Woman in their highest state of perfection were given the gift of marriage. Marriage is not second class anything.

      2) The most important and critical role in the Christian Church is that of an Elder/Overseer. In the qualifications to become an Elder listed in 1Timothy 3 is the qualification to be the "husband of one wife" (1Tim 3:2). This directive is listed again in Titus 1:6. Unmarried men are generally not considered to be qualified to lead a church. As an aside the Roman Catholic position that priests are not to marry is an unbiblical position. Such a standpoint has contributed to much harm. The fact that marriage is an important aspect of being qualified to be an Elder/Overseer in the Church underscores that marriage is not a deficient status in any way.

      3) Christ has determined that Christian marriage should be modeled after His relationship to His people. Christ is seen as the husband while the Church is understood to be Christ's bride. Husbands and wives are given exhortations and directives as to how they are to love one another in keeping with how Christ loves the Church and how the Church is to love Christ (Eph 5:22-33). This reinforces that marriage is central to the Christian Church and is to be held in the highest esteem.

    7. Chuck (part 2),

      Regarding the Victorian era, sin and error has flourished in every society including British society in the mid to late 1800s. There is certainly no 1:1 correspondence between Victorianism and Biblical Christianity. Incidentally, Charles Spurgeon pastored a church in London for close to 40 years during the Victorian period. His sermons have reached tens of millions of people. There are tens of thousands of his sermons currently in print. A robust perusal of his sermons would give you (or anyone) a good look into the Christian faith.

      As you relate I have no doubt your friends were negatively affected by Roman Catholic teaching on sex. Sex has been a difficult issue for the Roman Catholic Church on multiple fronts. Moreover, there has been much said about sex under the banner of fundamentalist Christianity that has been egregious. Perspectives that are merely the thoughts of self-righteous men and not reflective of what the Bible actually teaches. In terms of Freud, real Christian faith moves the soul away from sexual repression and towards sexual freedom and empowerment.

      Finally, my positive view on sex supported by biblical data is not novel. I'm just someone who knows what the Bible teaches on the matter and trusts it. Millions of others do as well and have a similar position as mine (no pun intended).

    8. A couple of questions here: I know for certain that many people who consider themselves Christians disagree with you on this, including but by no means limited to Catholics. 1) What denomination do you subscribe to? 2) Do you, then, consider those who think otherwise to not be Christians? Your assertions are strong enough to make me suspect as much.
      I ask this only out of curiosity. Since I haven't had any religious beliefs since puberty, I don't have a horse in this race.

    9. Patrick, I've been wanting to ask a similar question. Your concept of Christianity (and also Kyle Garza's, come to that) seems to me to be an idealized, perhaps even idiosyncratic, strain, in which everything - according to your own enlightened values - is perfect and all reconciled. My question isn't well expressed, but I despair of finding the time (and wits) to express it better right now. I hope this communicates the gist.

    10. Chuck,

      I do not subscribe to any particular denomination. The term Evangelical is a loaded term in our day and can be associated with things that do not apply to me but I do self-identify (with qualification) as an Evangelical. I attend an Evangelical church. A church that is big on the Gospel, and because of it, is big on a love for people, Christians and non Christians alike.

      As I indicated, Catholicism as a whole has struggled with sexuality in ways that are well known, but I also have friends who are serious Catholics who have similar perspectives to mine regarding sexuality and marriage.

      And no I do not think that just because someone disagrees with me on the Christian view of sexuality and marriage that automatically means the person isn't a Christian. I wouldn't think in those terms. Moreover, I would lead with being charitable.

      Your original comment was regarding Paul and sexual angst, consequently we have engaged about it. But of course marriage is bigger than sex. While sexual intimacy is fundamental to Christian marriage, it is not the sum total of Christian marriage. Tim Keller is a well known Evangelical. He and I share similar theological commitments. His book on marriage, The Meaning of Marriage, is a solid start regarding the topic of Christian marriage.

  4. Most people enter the cinema with a willingness, even an eagerness, to leave any historical fact and realistic character representation behind.

    Hollywood is a lot less kind to authors. Ernest Hemingway once mused, authors were best advised to meet Hollywood studios at the state line: "You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came."

    The first rule of the studios is to make money. The second rule is to keep the customers glued to and awake in their seats for two hours.

    Portraying a life of the mind can be dramatically daunting for anyone besides Samuel Beckett.

    I also excuse the producers for not showing the even more amazing work Turing did after the war and the ideas he was working on-- like what was to become the foundation of Chaos Theory. That would have been beyond the scope of the film as laid out.

    There is an amazing BBC film that includes a moving homage to Alan Turing called "The Secret Life of Chaos."

    Also on You Tube.

  5. Well, people write serious books. Is serious film, then, impossible? Too much money involved? Perhaps this is why I hardly ever watch a movie?

  6. Nice article. I saw the movie with my wife and kids (late teens, early 20s). We all enjoyed it from the standpoint of being a "good movie". I did think it was particularly sad how Turing's life was left with us. I hoped at the time that dynamic was more Hollywood than reality. As has been our custom over the last 12 years or so, our family discussed the movie over dinner. Often my wife and I try to provoke a semi-robust discussion with the kids about the movie we just saw to help draw them out to some critical thinking. After The Imitation Game we jointly concluded that at best we could only believe the movie "introduced" us to an aspect of history. That we could not treat the details as "gospel" for the very concerns you highlight. Given that we weren't intimately familiar with Alan Turing or that specific aspect of WW2, we had no trustworthy reference point.

    While this could be viewed as an oversimplification and is certainly not directly analogous, I do think the postmodern standpoint that the RECEIVER (not the creator or source) of the art OWNS the art could possibly be at play here (versus the modernist standpoint that the CREATOR or SOURCE of the art OWNS the art, ergo is the primary determinant of its meaning). Taking a cue from postmodernism perhaps the director and producers felt they had the right, as RECEIVERS of history to make their own meanings of the history they reviewed. It reminds me of the creative writing classes I took in grad school where the idea of "truthiness" was heralded as a noble destination (versus a suspect idea) and the most anyone could really ask for given that we are all masters of our personal, unassailable meanings.

    While it is true that NO history is inerrant or thoroughly objective (save the possibility of history contextualized as revelation, which by derivation makes internal claims to supernaturalism), there are nevertheless better approximations and articulations of recorded "reality" that exist in time alongside inferior approximations and articulations of that same "reality". It is lamentable, even troubling, that Hollywood rarely seems to be meticulous in staying close to the best historical texts on subjects that are tethered to recorded history. This problem is compounded given that most of the college students who fill my classes point to movies as the only source of their understanding of history. Thanks again for the post.

    1. Thanks for the comments. As you probably know by now, the Enigma project was real. Many of the details about it in the film were not, but it is fact that the codebreakers were helped by the stereotyped format of military communications, including the required "Heil Hitler" at the end. Alas, Turing's fate at the hands of the British government is also fact.
      I have a long standing beef with the PoMos over their silly notion that the meaning of a "text" is to be decided by the audience, not the author. It is especially asinine when applied to history.

  7. Yes, am aware the Enigma project was real but was only vaguely familiar prior to the movie highlighting it. That's probably sad on my part. Even sadder was what happened to Turing. He should have been thrown a parade and given a national holiday.

    And yes, the postmodern standpoint that locates meaning almost exclusively in the audience is particularly egregious in certain genres and disciplines, including history, especially history that is well documented from multiple sources, as opposed to myth or legend. Thanks again.

  8. Today I received the following email from William Silveira:

    A few weeks ago Chuck Smythe wrote a review of the recent movie about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. I disagreed with Chuck's criticism of the movie and thought I had successfully posted that to your blog. If I did, I never saw it. Chuck was critical of the movie because it was not a faithful biography of the man. I did not think the movie was wholly about Turing and had as much to do with the thought that no matter what the magnitude of an individual's contribution to the welfare of his country, fellow men, etc., those will be quickly forgotten and go unrecompensed when the individual who made the contribution most needs help. Clearly, the British secret service had the ability to have cut short and terminated Turing's criminal prosecution for homosexual acts, then considered criminal. Their failure to do so was a massive act of national ingratitude. It is also a glaring example of the coldness of government and of society's bent to punish social nonconformity. An analogous event in our history was the trashing of Robert Oppenheimer's reputation when he attempted to warn us of the dangers of the manufacture, use, and deployment of atomic weapons.

    I am very sorry to have had to tell William that his comment wasn't posted. Not sure what happened, but I get all-too-frequent reports from others as well. Alas, I have no control over that. The only thing I can (and do) do is to recommend that you always copy your comment to the paste-board (either by pressing keyboard-shortcut Ctl-C or right-clicking the mouse and selecting "Copy") before attempting to either preview or publish it. I, too, get failures, so depend on this procedure routinely as backup.