While success of wars depends on good leadership and sacrifice from soldiers, it is not always a hard battle. Sometimes, it is about knowing what your opponents think before they act, and that is when intelligence comes to play. Obtaining intelligence is more than sending out spies, but includes also intercepting messages for information. Countries are all equipped with the technology to intercept messages, but not the technology required to understand messages encoded by the Enigma machine, one of the most complicated encoding machines ever existed in the world and used by the Germans in WWII.
Winston Churchill once called Station X at Bletchley Park his “goose that laid the golden egg and never cackled”. Mathematicians (mostly from Cambridge), chess players, and linguists assembled at Station X for the highly confidential task of decoding wartime German messages. As a gibberish message processed by the Enigma machine could only be decoded by another Enigma machine, and each day the Germans would change the encoding settings of the Enigma machine, cryptanalysts’ analysis would only be useful for one day. What was more daunting was that there were 150 million million million possibilities for the setting, leaving the top talents exhausted. This all changed when Alan Turing abandoned the old way of manual decoding but successfully designed a decoding machine named Christopher to decipher German messages efficiently. Station X thus became the “golden egg” that could probe confidential information from the enemies. Christopher, or the Turing machine, is now considered a forerunner of modern time computer and formalises the concepts of algorithm and computation.
Alan Turing was a Cambridge Mathematician with immense interest in decoding messages since young. His interest developed due to his strong friendship with another student Christopher, whom he named the Turing machine after. Christopher helped Turing from school bullying and gradually, Turing had romantic feelings for him.
The success of the Turing machine assisted the British to gain valuable information of German warfare. However, not every decoded message would be reported, or the Germans would become suspicious. In one of the movie scenes, a teammate begged Turing to inform the army on a planned attack by the German, as his siblings were involved in that operation. However, Turing refused and concerns were raised over what right Turing had to control the fate of the soldiers. This is the age-old debate between valuing individual life and sacrificing for the wider community. Apparently Station X chose the latter. There was no right or wrong to the question, only that the war did shorten by two years with the help of Station X.
However, Station X remained largely unknown to the public. At the end of WWII, Churchill demanded all records be burnt in bonfire. If not for The Ultra Secret by F. W. Winterbotham, a former British Royal Air Force officer responsible for distributing intelligence, being published in 1974, the secret might still not be revealed to the general public. The cryptologists at Station X were largely a group of heroes who indeed deserved recognition.
Despite his substantial contribution during WWII and to the development of computer science, Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency in 1950s due to his homosexuality. As an alternative to imprisonment, he was ordered two-year chemical castration treatment. He committed suicide after receiving a year of the treatment. He was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II posthumously in 2013 in recognition of his contribution.
The Imitation Game has been both commercial and critical success. It has earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley) and Best Director. The movie is undeniably an excellent production with outstanding performance of actors, who have done their very best with their roles. Different time frames are presented – the young Turing in school, Turing during WWII, and Turing under police investigation for gross indecency – and the transits are made smoothly. A movie like this deserves many Oscar nominations, and The Imitation Game does not let its supporters down – it did secure quite a few nominations. And yet maybe the film has been calculated in such a way to receive critical acclaim that it lacks uniqueness. It is just another movie with the ambition to capture as many prizes as possible.
Nevertheless, the movie raises awareness towards the uncelebrated heroes of WWII, that without their hard work, the war might have dragged for two more years with heavier casualties. It also constantly reminds the audience that “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.“
One interesting fact to note – some scientists claim that Benedict Cumberbatch is distantly related to Alan Turing as 17th cousins. Both can be traced back to John Beaufort, the first Earl of Somerset born in 1373, through their paternal lines.