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Fact-Checking the Film: 'The Imitation Game'

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The Imitation Game 02
Jack English

Oscar season is here, which means a flurry of fact-based movies are on their way to theaters. EW is fact-checking these films—everything from The Theory of Everything to Wild—to see just how true-to-life they turned out.

The Imitation Game takes on the life of mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing, depicting his life as a stream of tragedy and triumph. Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and the film centers around Turing’s difficulties concealing his sexuality in a time when homosexuality was against the law, as well as his relationships with his coworkers as he tries to crack Enigma, the German military code machine.

Based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma, by mathematician and author Andrew Hodges, the film begins with the police investigation into a burglary at Turing’s home, which leads to the discovery of Turing’s homosexuality, which Turing is subsequently arrested for and sentenced to chemical castration in 1952. The police interrogation of Turing serves as a narrative device to flash back to his crucial work during World War II as well as a glimpse into a profound friendship during his teenage schoolboy years. But like any large-scale Hollywood production, the film does take liberties with dramatizing the action of the film, sometimes amplifying drama over historical fact. Warning: Spoilers galore.

Movie: Turing’s blank military record arouses the suspicion of Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear), who was initially tasked with solving the burglary of Turing’s home. Nock, suspecting Turing of being a Soviet spy, realizes that Turing is not a spy, but gay, and Turing merely attempted to cover up the fact that the burglar was a former male lover. Turing tells him about his work at in World War 2 during his interrogation.

Reality: According to the film’s production notes, Detective Nock was a fictional character, designed to provide a conduit for the audience’s involvement in the story. “He gives us another perspective—putting the audience in the head of the police officer who arrested him, we can see how a normal person, not a bad person, could end up doing this horrible thing to Alan,” said the film’s writer, Graham Moore, in the notes. At that time, Turing’s work during World War II was highly classified, so the interchange between the fictional Nock and Turing was simply a bout of narrative exposition.

Movie: Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) enters Bletchley Park by solving a crossword puzzle in the newspaper seeking out applicants for an “exciting opportunity,” a contest set up by Turing and MI6 to find more talented recruits. Clarke is the only entrant in the room full of men to solve a crossword puzzle under six minutes, thereby obtaining a job at Bletchley Park.

Reality: Clarke was already working at Bletchley Park doing clerical work, having been recruited by the Government Code and Cypher School (GC & CS). She was recommended by one of her supervisors at Cambridge, where she earned a double first in mathematics. Clarke’s mathematical skills were noticed, and she was selected to work in Hut 8, the group in Bletchley Park led by Turing at the time. According to Hodge’s biography, Clarke had even met Turing previously at Cambridge.

Movie: In flashbacks to 1928, a teenage Turing (Alex Lawther) forms a close friendship with Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), a fellow student at the Sherborne School, where Turing was relentlessly bullied. Morcom later dies of bovine tuberculosis during holiday break, and the headmaster informs a shocked Turing of his friend’s death.

Reality: Morcom and Turing were very close friends, but Turing knew Morcom was ill for some time, so his death did not come as a shock to Turing at the time. Turing also maintained contact with Morcom’s family after his death, exchanging letters with Morcom’s mother.

Movie: Turing names his Enigma-cracking machine Christopher, in honor of his late friend.

Reality: The machine that eventually cracked Enigma was called the Bombe, and the digital computer that Turing later invented was called the Universal Turing Machine.

Movie: John Cairncross (Allen Leech) was a double agent working for Britain and secretly, the Soviet Union. Cairncross is a part of Turing’s group solving Enigma, and initially befriends and eventually blackmails Turing with his sexuality in order to keep his own double-agent status a secret. Head of MI6, Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), tries to use Turing’s knowledge of Cairncross’s Soviet ties to selectively feed information to their Soviet allies.

Reality: Cairncross did work at Bletchley Park and admitted to being a Soviet spy in 1951, but his participation in Turing’s group as seen in the film was fictional. According to an interview with the Sunday Times, Hodges said it was “ludicrous” that Cairncross and Turing would have worked together at Bletchley Park, where contact with other sections was highly limited. “Their relationship is invented,” Hodges added.

Movie: Turing and his group solve Enigma, but they must hold off on telling their superiors so the Germans don’t get suspicious and change the code—forcing them to ignore the warning of an impending attack on British convoys. Turing goes to Menzies to help come up with a statistical method to figure out the minimum and maximum amount of attacks they can inform British forces about without arousing the suspicion of the Germans.

Reality: The movie showed a fictional account of how the group grappled with the decision with when to act upon German attacks found in the codes and when not to. According to the Telegraph, Menzies was tasked with coming up with the system in which a certain percentage of intelligence gathered from the code breaks were used and passed onto British forces.

Movie: Turing asks Clarke to marry him as a way to keep her at Bletchley Park, since her parents were keen to marry Clarke off as soon as possible. They break up later as Turing feels that his knowledge of Cairncross as the Soviet spy threatens Clarke’s position at Bletchley Park. Turing also admits to Clarke that he is gay, but Clarke didn’t care, so he cruelly breaks up with Clarke so as not to endanger her with his association.

Reality: Turing asked Clarke to marry him and told her the next day that he was gay—which left Clarke unfazed. Their engagement carried on for several months, but the mounting pressure led Turing to break up with Clarke later with a poem from Oscar Wilde, which strained their relationship for some time. However, Turing and Clarke maintained a close friendship until his death in 1954.

Movie: In a postscript, the movie stated that Turing eventually killed himself at age 41 in 1954 by cyanide poisoning and was granted a posthumous pardon in 2013 by Queen Elizabeth II.

Reality: The death did come as a shock to those who knew Turing, and the investigation concluded that Turing’s death was a suicide. Hodges noted that Turing had a half-eaten apple lying by his desk, but it was never established if the apple was laced with cyanide as a delivery method for Turing’s suicide. Turing’s mother, Ethel, believed it was an accidental death, due to Turing’s frequent handling of cyanide for the various experiments he conducted in his home.

The Imitation Game is out in theaters Nov. 28.