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True heroes, unlike their cinematic counterparts, rarely receive the appreciation that they deserve. Oh sure: they may be honored, feted and immortalized via statuary but this is usually long after they’ve ceased drawing breath on this particular plane of existence. The reason for this, in most cases, is that true heroes…the kinds who save tens of thousands, if not more…usually operate in the shadows, away from the spotlight of public scrutiny. They’re the doctors and scientists who discover new cures and immunizations on a regular basis…the engineers who continue to craft safer buildings, bridges and roads…the unsung politicians, bureaucrats and civil servants who toil away behind the scenes, not for power, money or glory but because they honestly don’t want to see their citizenry starving or freezing to death in the streets. Cinematic heroes are a lot more thrilling, sure: watching Batman punch the living shit out of garishly clad supervillains is much more thrilling IMAX fare than watching Jonas Salk develop a Polio vaccine. When it comes down to brass tacks, however, it’s kind of obvious that Salk has saved at least a few more folks than Batman has, albeit with much less panache.

Morten Tyldum’s multi-Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game (2014) takes a look at one such unsung hero, the prickly, brilliant mathematician/cryptologist Alan Turing. Aside from being responsible for the Turing machine, a proto-computer that would be a nice enough feather in anyone’s cap, Turing was also one of the British code-breakers responsible for cracking Germany’s infamous Enigma machine during World War II, allowing the Allies to move the war into its endgame. Estimates put the number of lives saved by ending the war early at around 14 million, give or take: in other words, not bad for a guy who wore a sweater and slacks to  work instead of a spandex suit. Along with being a world-class code-breaker, however, Turing was also a gay man during a time period when sexual orientation was illegal. Years after his triumph over the Engima machine, Turing was prosecuted and found guilty of indecency: choosing chemical castration, Turing would go on to commit suicide roughly a year after his “therapy,” at the tender age of 41.

Similar to The Iron Lady (2011) and The Theory of Everything (2014), The Imitation Game takes the real facts of Turing’s life and expands, folds and manipulates them into something altogether more “cinematic,” if arguably less factual. By employing a flashback structure, Tyldum runs three simultaneous timelines: the “present-day,” circa 1951; the “war years,” circa the 1940s; and Turing’s childhood, circa the late-’20s. While the meat of the story takes place during the war, the “present-day” material opens the film and sets up a mystery (of sorts) that the school and war eras will attempt to “solve.”

In the present day, we follow Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) as he investigates a mysterious break-in at the home of Prof. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). As Nock investigates the incident, with a minimum amount of support and help from the prickly Turing, he becomes stymied by the reclusive professor’s redacted military record. This leads us into the film proper, with Turing attempting to offer his services to the British government as a decoder, despite a complete lack of interest in politics, social disorder or even a rudimentary understanding of the German language.

As Turing butts heads with his rigid, disapproving commander (Charles Dance), he also manages to tick off the other code-breakers that he’s supposed to be working with, labeling each of them as “worthless” in each own, indomitable way. He does, however, manage to find a kindred spirit in Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley): their friendship eventually develops into an engagement, albeit one inherently doomed by Alan’s homosexuality. We then get the third part of our little “triptych” as we journey back to Turing’s boyhood years and witness the young genius (Alex Lawther) as he’s introduced to the world of cryptography and falls in love with his classmate, Christopher (Jack Bannon). As these three timelines move and maneuver around each other, we gradually develop a more complete picture of Turing as the quintessential outsider, a man tasked with saving the social order that , ultimately, condemns and hates him. You know: pretty much the definition of the selfless hero.

While the historical details behind The Imitation Game are certainly up for debate (as they were in the aforementioned biopics) the film, itself, is a much sturdier, well-made and entertaining affair than either The Iron Lady or The Theory of Everything. Credit certainly must go to Cumberbatch, who tears into the role of Turing with complete and absolute gusto: while he gets several “big” scenes, it’s all of the small, almost invisible personal tics and quirks that really make the character come alive. While there’s nothing here that’s completely foreign to Cumberbatch’s work with the new Sherlock series (aside from a new-found sense of vulnerability that would fit the smug detective as poorly as a reverse-mohawk), he’s pretty effortless as getting across the commingled pain, hubris and awkwardness that seemed to be at the heart of the character. Cumberbatch is an actor who understands how important it is to listen: there’s a rare joy to be found in watching an almost endless cycle of emotions sail across his expressive face, from boyish mischief to hopeless defeat. Rather than simply indulging in mimicry (as with Streep’s take on Maggie Thatcher or Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking), Cumberbatch does it the old-fashioned way and just acts.

As befits this type of large-scale production, Cumberbatch has quite the cast to back him up. While Keira Knightley has never especially blown me away, I quite enjoyed her low-key performance as Joan: the bit where she tells the obnoxious Turing that, as a woman in a man’s job, she “doesn’t have the luxury of being an ass,” like him, is subtly (but witheringly) delivered but as sturdy as concrete. There’s also good work coming from Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard and James Northcote as Turing’s put-upon co-workers, with Goode getting some especially nice moments. If Charles Dance and Low Winter Sun’s Mark Strong come off more stereotypical and clichéd (as the stodgy commander and sneaky MI6 agent, respectively), chalk this up to roles that serve more as plot-points than to any deficiencies in the acting, which are top-notch.

From a filmmaking perspective, The Imitation Game mostly works, although I’ll admit to not being a fan of the flashback structure. For my money, this would have worked much better as a more traditional narrative, moving from Turing’s childhood up to his indecency conviction: the constant cutting between eras often has the effect of pulling us out of the moment, making it difficult to ever get fully invested in the structure. The “present-day” material also exists solely as a contrived “mystery,” especially since the final emotional resolution occurs via screen-text after the film has actually ended. Running it chronologically (with, perhaps, a return to the childhood-era for the final revelation/emotional wallop) would have kept the focus on Turing, eliminating the unnecessary mystery element. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the various newsreel cutaways and war scenes, while de rigueur for this type of film, really stick out like a sore thumb: they never feel authentic or, to be honest, even particularly well-integrated.

While The Imitation Game would go on to rack up an altogether impressive array of award nominations (including a win for Best Adapted Screenplay), there were also plenty of critics who decried the film’s various historical inaccuracies and seeming desire to minimize Turing’s homosexuality. From my perspective, I didn’t necessarily find this to be the case. While it’s certainly true that the film makes certain deviations from the historical record (including creating characters and conflicts that never existed), it would be difficult to find a cinematic biopic that doesn’t do that: certainly, The Imitation Game seems no more guilty of this than does the similarly lauded The Theory of Everything, which managed to paint its subject in such glowing terms that the whole thing seemed more than a bit fanciful and overly romantic. The Imitation Game is a much more gritty, down-to-earth film, albeit one with a foot planted firmly in the kinds of historical biopics that multiplex audiences will be more than familiar with.

I also felt that Turing’s homosexuality was portrayed in a much more organic way than many films like this might opt for: the silly “mystery” angle notwithstanding, the childhood and war-era storylines opt for a refreshing “show, don’t tell” mentality that never feels forced. While the final text does seem like a bit of a cop-out (for the most part, the entirety of the film’s equality message is shoe-horned in right before the credits roll), there’s enough subtle characterization and commentary, throughout, to get the message across loud and clear.

Ultimately, The Imitation Game is a suitably sturdy, well-made character study, although I certainly didn’t find it to be the best film of 2014 (or even one of the best, to be honest). While Tyldum is an assured hand with the material here, guiding the film’s many tense setpieces with a ruthless sense of efficiency, there’s also very little that stands out, aside from the excellent performances. For my money, Tyldum’s previous film, the astounding Headhunters (2011), was a much more impressive, mind-blowing piece of art: The Imitation Game, while more important and “serious,” is certainly the lesser of the two, in close comparison.

Despite its (decidedly minor) issues, however, there’s no denying that The Imitation Game is a solid, powerful and well-crafted film. In an era where the LGBT community still fights for the rights, respect and understanding that has been sadly absent for too long, there’s no denying that this is a story that definitely needs to be told. As long as any person is forced to go through what Alan Turing was put through, all of humanity collectively suffers. Here’s to hoping that, in the future, our children will look back on the events depicted in The Imitation Game as an example of a petty, small-minded and terrible time that no longer exists.

True heroism, after all, isn’t about making the world better for yourself: true heroism is about making the world better for everyone, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, nation of origin, religion (or lack thereof), political-leaning or personal wealth.

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