The Imitation Game ★★

[4]

If you happen to follow my Twitter feed, you'll know that I've already gotten a bit hot and bothered about this film. In retrospect, it was probably a good deal of energy wasted, or at least misdirected. I tend to forget that useless dreck like The Imitation Game is pimped on every streetcorner around Oscar season by an industry that considers movies as product, not art. Most of the time, that product is slathered in Adam Sandler, and it farts. (As we now know, even Sony employees have had enough of that production line.)

But from mid-October on, it entails wan, forgettable "prestige" product, engineered to strike a chord with the industry itself. If you were trying to impress a group of Chicago School economists, you wouldn't come out of the gate bashing Milton Friedman. Rather, you'd accept supply-side economics as an axiom and go from there. If you were a guest speaker before a conclave of bishops, you might discuss and even debate small disagreements of church doctrine, but you wouldn't go blazing in with the proposal that God doesn't exist and His earthly servants are knowing charlatans. And, if you're making Oscar-bait, you assume that History only has meaning inasmuch as it effects the here-and-now, and it is probably best understood using present-day categories, because we know so much better than they did.

At the risk of echoing Pauline Kael's infamous remark of liberal insularity ("Everyone I know voted for McGovern"), I don't know anyone who cares about Shakespeare in Love anymore, or thinks about The Reader, or remembers Billy Elliott as anything other than a Broadway play. Crash is little more than a punchline, or an occasionally trotted-out example of just how low Hollywood standards can sink. We will never return to Cold Mountain, except perhaps to have a good look at Renee Zellweger's old face. These films did what they were made to do (garner noms and wins, set "Oscar prognosticators" to work...) and they were done. Trying to remember them is like trying to recall a specific Whopper or Big Mac you ate on a particular day. Was it unusually salty? Were the onions crisp? Did the edges of the bun maintain a slightly resistant tooth-feel?

The Imitation Game is not so much a film as an assemblage of hacky tropes. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing as neuro-atypical / Asperger's before such assessments were possible, and in doing this allows viewers to feel smugly superior to the individuals at Bletchley Park and the broader society that persecuted him. That is, we are automatically positioned, along with Alan, on the side of Enlightenment. This is how a film congratulates its audience, not necessarily for doing anything, just for being born 50+ years later.

This is also a way for the film to make Turing's complex mind explicable for a viewership (particularly Americans -- orders from Harvey W, no doubt) that is always already distrustful of intellectuals. If Turing is "born with it," a prodigy or a savant, then no one need feel threatened. His genius does not indict the rest of us by implication; no amount of hard work that we simply didn't do could ever have made us an Alan Turing, so why should we feel bad for not being geniuses?

Finally, The Imitation Game fails even as a piece of boilerplate middlebrow mythmaking. I mean, of course we never see Turing or anyone else actually doing science or math(s), in the same way Girl With the Pearl Earring never showed Vermeer actually painting. These films are about personalities, never labor. But why is the plot movement and organization so herky-jerky? Meaningless social interactions are dwelled upon, while crucial moments, like cracking Enigma, are rushed through.

Note the sudden tonal shift when the team first decodes German U-boat positions and suddenly has to decide not to prevent an imminent attack. This happens so quickly, and so clumsily, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were watching community theatre. However, the problem is that Morten Tyldum (and, let's face it, Harvey Weinstein) didn't allow for the transitions this film needed. Moving from code-breaking to statistical risk analysis, or from isolation to community and back to isolation -- these changes in emphasis should have been formally demarcated. They surely were not articulated on their own, through Tyldum's elaboration of the plot.

But of course, chapter headings or clearer, more didactic parallels would have been "too literary," therefore too alienating to the phantom "Regular Guy" Weinstein always thinks his films are supposed to appeal to. In reality, any maneuver that would have made The Imitation Game better would have dented its value as a product, because it was never supposed to be better. It was supposed to be only just competent enough to look "awardable," get a trophy or two, and then slink away into the vault. It's a trivia question in the making.