I, and many millions of others who work with computers, owe my living to Alan Turing. Many soldiers and civilians of the Second World War also owed their freedom and their lives to him and his Hut 8 colleagues at Bletchley Park, the centre of British efforts to decode German military transmissions.
Alan Turing’s 1936 paper ‘On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ laid the theoretical foundations of the general algorithmic computer. His wartime contribution to the decryption of Enigma-encoded messages, building on the work of Polish cryptanalysts, and improving the Poles’ design for a decryption machine (the ‘bombe’), shortened the Second World War significantly. He was also a long-distance runner of almost national standard. It is possible, perhaps even probable, but not certain, that he died by his own hand.
On Friday I saw a film (The Imitation Game) about an obstreperous, autistic mathematical genius, who fought with his commanding officer to invent, design and construct his own decryption machine. He was the first to realise the importance of cribs in decryption. He unmasked the Soviet spy, John Cairncross, and, alone, wrote to Churchill to urge his support for the decryption project and asking to be put in charge. He also plotted the path of the Allies’ transatlantic convoys, and wrestled with the moral consequences of not acting on the intelligence he had derived from German signals. Later, having being convicted of ‘gross indecency’ he killed himself following two years of prescribed chemical castration.
Most of this is distortion or untruth. This is ‘Alan Turing’ the Hollywood construct, not Alan Turing the man.
Actually, the atmosphere at Bletchley Park was collegiate, and Alan Turing did nothing to disturb this. He was not autistic. He probably never met John Cairncross. He enjoyed a good working relationship with a supportive Commander Denniston. He was never involved in the use of intelligence material. It was not he, alone, but the team in Hut 8 who wrote to Churchill, following Churchill’s visit to Bletchley and his urging them to seek his support if they needed it. And so on.
The writer and director plead artistic license.
Screenwriter Graham Moore says: “When you use the language of ‘fact checking’ to talk about a film, I think you’re sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works. You don’t fact check Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’. That’s not what water lilies look like, that’s what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That’s the goal of the piece.”
Director Morten Tyldum adds: “A lot of historical films sometimes feel like people reading a Wikipedia page to you onscreen. We wanted the movie to be emotional and passionate. Our goal was to give you ‘What does Alan Turing feel like?’ What does his story feel like? What’d it feel like to be Alan Turing? Can we create the experience of sort of ‘Alan Turing-ness’ for an audience based on his life?’
This is patronising, pretentious, self-serving nonsense. It’s the truth ‘as they see it’, a ‘deeper truth’ than the facts would reveal. It’s their vision. It’s about them, about Hollywood, and not about Alan Turing at all.
The truth matters. People fight for it. I see no virtue at all in this much disrespect for truth, however magnificent Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting.