This season’s Hollywood math/physics extravaganza is starting to come to an end. For coverage of the Breakthrough Prize ceremony, I enthusiastically recommend Michael Harris’s new piece at Slate which just appeared.
The final high profile production, one promoted at the Silicon Valley ceremony, should be The Imitation Game, a film based on the life of Alan Turing, to be released on November 28th. I had the chance to attend a preview screening last night, featuring a Q and A with the film’s screenwriter. The short version of a review is: go to see this is you like watching Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley perform, but if you want to know anything about Turing, avoid the film and spend your money instead on a copy of the new edition of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.
Turing’s story was little known until 1983, when Hodges published his biography, which is just fantastically good. Hodges (see his web-site here) is a mathematical physicist who began working with Penrose back in the 1970s on twistor diagrams, work that has recently played a prominent role in the hot topic of new methods for computing scattering amplitudes. The Hodges book made Turing a famous figure, partly for his code-breaking role, partly as a martyr for gay rights given the horrific story of the way he was treated because of his sexual orientation. By 1986 the biography had inspired a play, Breaking the Code, that ran in London and New York, and then became a 1996 movie. There have been other film treatments of the story since, including the 2011 Codebreaker.
Other than a few general facts, the part of the film set at Bletchley Park has little relationship to reality, with almost none of what is portrayed actually having happened. As just one example of the sort of thing that was made up out of whole cloth, the film has Turing discovering a Soviet spy, who uses his homosexuality to blackmail him into silence. Cumberbatch plays a compelling character, but one much like his Sherlock Holmes on TV, not like the Turing of the Hodges book, or like any other mathematically talented person I’ve ever known.
It often mystifies me why people who make movies based on fascinating real stories sometimes just ignore what really happened and instead make up a much less interesting plot. In this case, hearing from the screenwriter after the film made the problem clear. He seems convinced that Turing is a little known figure, and that it is his job to reveal this unknown story to the public, unaware that this was done much better back when he was in pre-school. From his comments, he never bothered to understand anything about what Turing actually did during the war, in particular he is convinced that Turing’s big breakthrough was to realize that to break codes it was helpful to know some phrases that were likely to be in the message (e.g. “Heil Hitler”). He explained that he was sure that Turing saw himself as a figure in a thriller, and that informed how he wrote the film. All in all, he had a very simplistic agenda (to reveal the unknown fact that a gay man had won World War II) which completely overwhelmed any interest in the details of what actually happened.
The contrast with the recent Stephen Hawking biopic is striking. That film took some dramatic license, and simplified some complex people and situations, but it didn’t just completely make things up, and the star’s portrayal of Hawking was convincingly true to life. The memory of Alan Turing would have been much better served by a similar degree of respect for reality.