It happens every year around this time. As December 31st approaches and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences begin thinking about what they will nominate, we get more of what has come to be known as Oscar bait – those movies specifically designed to elicit a generosity of the awards-giving spirit. Not all of the Academy Award-winners will be Oscar bait, but a fair number of the nominees will fall into the category. These are pictures that feature characters or stories calculated in such a way to unfairly manipulate the viewer, so if you’re the type who avoids such tom-foolery, you have to be on your toes in the late fall/early winter. The Imitation Game should trip a lot of your sensors – high-profile portrayal of a tortured genius, war film, distributed by The Weinstein Company – but is it really just bait? Or does the film earn its gravitas?
The year is 1939 and Benedict Cumberbatch – the de facto boyfriend of the obsessive branch of the internet – as Alan Turing, a British mathematician, is hired as part of a team striving to crack the Nazi’s unbreakable Enigma code – a breakthrough that could help the allies win the war. Much like Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch’s most famous role, Turing is a genius with little patience for his fellow human beings. Alan’s distaste for his fellow code-breakers, including Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander and Allen Leech as John Cairncross, jeopardizes his progress in building a thinking machine that could bring the Nazis down. Only the beautiful and brilliant Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) manages to bring Alan out of his shell, but his homosexuality (illegal at the time) is an unspoken barrier in their would-be romantic relationship.
The building of Alan’s machine – which he calls “Christopher” after his lone friend from childhood – is a complex story, and watching the team figure out how to use it to solve their problem is very engaging. Even more interesting, once the code has been cracked the puzzle continues in a surprising way. Alan and his fellow mathematicians are forced to make really difficult decisions, which adds depth to Alan apart from the aspects of the autism spectrum Cumberbatch starts with when the film opens.
But Turing was more than just his war work. And – at the risk of boiling a real historical figure down to two specific pieces of his humanity stew – the fallout from the revelation of Alan’s homosexuality is just as important a part of his life. Upon the discovery of his “indecency,” Alan was offered the choice between imprisonment and chemical castration – a horrible decision no one should ever have to make for the simple crime of living his or her life. The movie portrays this, but mostly to give Cumberbatch and Knightley one final moving scene together. The film attempts to squeeze a gay rights message into some on-screen text at the conclusion of the film, but where is this sentiment in the feature itself?
I guess that’s not fair, as I’m complaining about what the movie isn’t, instead of what it is, but the problem is also present in the final product. Turing’s sexuality is addressed directly a few times in the film (though it is treated as a reveal at one point, which feels disrespectful), but writer Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum dance around it more than anything else. It feels awkward every time homosexuality is invoked, presumably because the filmmakers don’t know how to handle the issue. It is as if they were worried their movie might get pigeonholed as “queer cinema” if they focused on it too much. Better to attempt to side-step the matter as much as possible.
If we look at the film just as a portrayal of Turing’s work during World War II, it is pretty effective. The stakes these men (and woman) are dealing with are well conveyed, except when the movie tries to use CGI to depict events such as the London Blitz. Similar sentiments are passed along later through newsreel footage, so the use of the sub-par graphics is kind of baffling. As is the unnecessary non-linearity of the film. The movie jumps between Alan’s work during World War II, his childhood in the 20’s, and his post-war life in the 50’s. Both the 20’s and 50’s chunks are unnecessary to the narrative, serving to drive home points which the World War II-set timeline already makes abundantly clear.
So we come back to my initial question: is The Imitation Game awards bait? That’s a tough one. The movie gives more layers to its main character than bait tend to do (see Dallas Buyers Club), and my main issues with the film are in what the filmmakers chose not to show instead of what they included. The movie does attempt to manipulate the emotions of its audience, but by the time we get there it almost feels appropriate. Expect The Imitation Game to be thrown around a lot in the next few months. It is a fascinating movie built on some strong performances, so the Oscars could do worse.