BY Claire Potter ON February 5, 2015
Since this review essay is behind the firewall at the New York Review of Books, most of you won’t get to read it, but Christian Caryl’s critique of the historical (in)accuracies in Morton Tyldum’s Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game (2014) deserves mention. I do recall, after having wept my way through the end of the movie, asking my partner whether we had every seen a major motion picture about a gay man that did not end tragically, and we couldn’t think of one.
Turing, a brilliant mathematician, cryptographer and digital pioneer, was persecuted under British law for his homosexuality, and did endure several years of chemical castration. Citing the relevant scholarship, however, Caryl argues that it is unlikely that Turing killed himself, or that he was reduced to a pathetic trembling shambles, as the end of The Imitation Game suggests. (Indeed, as any of us who has ever taken estrogen would know, that is definitely not one of its effects.) Turing may have killed himself entirely by mistake, as part of an experiment, left no suicide note, and was not perceived by any of his friends as suicidal at the time. In fact, he had just embarked on a new series of investigations he was quite excited about.
While Turing was “decidedly eccentric, and he did not suffer fools gladly,” the early hostility between Turing and the rest of the team is a fiction, as is his portrayal as a “tortured” genius who fought alone and unappreciated for the project that ultimately may have won the war for the allies. Furthermore, Turing’s team had begun to break the German Enigma codes long before the “A-HA!” moment in the film, using an earlier version of the machine dubbed “Christopher,” supposedly named after Turing’s secret boarding school love. In nearly all respects, the story of the war as it was fought at Bletchley Park is, Caryl writes, also “a bizarre departure from the historical record.” The film “does its best to ladle in extra doses of intrigue where none existed,” including Turing’s discovery of a Soviet spy, who then threatens to reveal Turing’s homosexuality if Turing reveals his own treachery.
As for the story about Turing’s agonized, hidden and largely unrequited sexuality? Caryl’s reading of the two extant biographies is that:
there is no basis for any of this in the historical record; it’s monstrous hogwash, a conceit entirely cooked up by Moore. The real Turing certainly paid periodic and dignified respects to the memory of his first love, Christopher Morcom, but I doubt very much that he ever confused his computers with people. In perhaps the most bitter irony of all, the filmmakers have managed to transform the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love too hate.
The film, Caryl writes, “is desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem but can’t bring itself to show him kissing another man — something he did frequently, and with gusto.”
Reading this review caused me to re-think the very public controversy over historical inaccuracies in the movie Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014), and particularly its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson (nobody seems to have worried very much about its portrayal of James Farmer, which was also quite partial, to say the least.) Two things stand out: the first is that filmmakers are far more interested in a great story than in history, and that in the name of art they rearrange facts for maximum effect. This has always been true, and to that extent I would argue that Ava DuVernay came in for special criticism that a white, male director obviously does not. The second, however, is that film is an important vehicle for conveying historical, cultural and political narratives, and historians need to be much more active in pointing out these flaws and demanding that filmmakers address them. When it comes to queer history, this is doubly important: our field has advanced swiftly in less than three decades, and we shouldn’t stand by while culture producers continue to inform the general public that we are inherently tragic figures.