Alan Turing was a mathematician whose work laid the foundation for modern computing. His team was instrumental in cracking previously unbreakable German codes during WWII, part of a highly classified project that remained confidential until years after his death. The bulk of The Imitation Game—an Alan Turing biopic boasting a fast-paced, Swing Kids–meets–John le Carré tone—is set during WWII, as Turing and his team of geniuses race to build a machine that can crack the world's most sophisticated code.
A zippy nostalgia suffuses these segments of The Imitation Game. Director Morten Tyldum makes air raids look like promotional posters, bombed cities like postcards of ancient ruins. The Imitation Game saves its real stakes for Turing himself. Flashbacks reveal his childhood as a tiny, brutally bullied genius at boarding school; flash-forwards to the 1950s gradually reveal Turing's future, and his treatment at the hands of his own government. It's an effective structure: When thoroughly grounded in Turing's influence and his contributions, the details of his life are even more heartbreaking.
Much is made of Turing's awkwardness—his inability to understand social cues, his indifference to social niceties—but the film doesn't generate much excitement around his actual work. The Imitation Game could be a little wonkier, a little more concerned with the workings of the machine and less with how the machine is reflected in the man. But The Imitation Game doesn't ask much of its audience's intelligence. Plot points are telegraphed, and the script can be leaden—as when, regrettably, the screenwriter stuffs the mantra "Sometimes it's the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects" into the mouth of a British schoolboy (and two other characters). And a title card before the end credits can't resist reminding us that the legacy of Turing machines lives on: "Today, we call them computers." You don't say.
The Imitation Game is a big sepia war drama designed to make holiday audiences feel things. What it makes us feel, though, is not War Is Hell or Brotherhood Is Eternal or Human Spirit Triumphs Against Impossible Odds. It makes us feel the acute shittiness of a world in which a gay genius kills himself (spoiler) because his sexuality was criminalized by the very government that should have protected and celebrated him.