Riley Stearns (Faults) Talks Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game

Flashing back to his high-school days, the LA-based writer-director ponders how you should discuss a film you don't feel strongly about either way.

I may have gotten myself into a bit of a pickle. You see, I’m not a critic. Before my last Talkhouse Film piece on Borgman, the only other time I’d written about a film was in AP English my junior year of high school. My teacher gave us the assignment to pick a scene from a film of our choosing and write about it. Camera angles, performance, color, whatever we wanted. Not only that, but we would show the class the scene and then give a distilled presentation. I still remember a few these presentations, for some reason. A friend of mine did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. One girl talked about Requiem for a Dream and played a scene that made some of the class visibly uncomfortable (not “ass to ass,” thank God). And this one kid chose Traffic and acted out a scene between the father and daughter in the film. He paused in the middle of his performance to ask the teacher permission to say the F-word, which she allowed. He then said the F-word. It felt really forced and awkward.

At that point in my life, I hadn’t totally gotten into film. I appreciated it enough and had seen some of the art films that the other kids were doing their reports on, but I didn’t really think about films after I saw them, let alone know how to dissect them or talk about them. So what film did I choose to write about? The teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait. Yeah. My reasoning was logical enough: I’d seen it more than once and my friend owned the DVD so I wouldn’t have to rent or buy it. I proceeded to watch, an innumerable amount of times, the scene where Jenna Elfman arrives dressed as an angel and talks to Ethan Embry’s character about life and Barry Manilow. Despite the fact that I 100 percent tried to write an intelligent paper, I ended up having to bullshit my way through most of it. Afterwards I realized that even though I liked the movie (and still do, for the record), nothing about it really spoke to me. It didn’t really elicit a reaction one way or the other. I got a B-minus on the paper/presentation. In retrospect, I should have picked another film… and I should have said the F-word too.

If you’re still reading, you may be asking where I’m going with all this. Well, I saw The Imitation Game the other day and it’s perfectly fine. Totally innocuous. Neither great nor bad. My problem is that as I was driving home from the screening, I realized I had no clue how to talk about a film that doesn’t speak to me. I can go on for hours about a film that I love and, on the flip side, I can talk about a film I that didn’t work for just as long, if not longer.

The problem with Imitation is that on paper it could have been a really good film. Some of the components are there. A few years back, it was a well-loved script that held the number-one spot on The Black List (the yearly poll of various industry types to bring attention to the best unproduced screenplays of year, not the TV show where James Spader wears a lot of unnecessary hats). The film has also got a phenomenal cast of actors, particularly Benendict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. As an aside, Alex Lawther is the real standout in the film. He plays a younger version of Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing. Damn, I guess I should probably talk a little about the plot now. A professional critic would have probably put that at the beginning of the article, right?

The Imitation Game is an “historical thriller” about real-life mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing’s efforts during WWII to crack the Nazis’ Enigma machine codes using a precursor of the modern-day computer.

That sounds like an awesome movie, right? Just a bit more about Alan Turing. He was the man who helped win the war and save numerous lives but was sworn to secrecy, so no one except those with top-level security clearance knew of his contributions. He was a closeted homosexual. He was a man who was convicted of gross indecency (being gay) just years after the war. He was chemically castrated by the same government that had hired him to help defeat the Nazis. This barbaric practice permanently changed Turing into a different person… a person he couldn’t continue to live as. He chose to commit suicide the following year by taking cyanide.

Turing’s life was incredible, but it was also tragic. Either you make a taught thriller about the breaking of the Enigma codes with Alan Turing as the “character” in your film, or you make a film about Alan Turing, the man, who happened to break the Enigma codes, but who was also much more. The Imitation Game couldn’t decide whether it wanted Turing the character or Turing the man, so it chose both. As a result, what we’re given is a film in which the Turing character ends a scene with a one-liner that would make a superhero roll his eyes and miraculously figures out the key to breaking the Nazi code the very night before the government is going to pull the plug on the whole operation. Then at the end of the film, once he’s broken the codes and the Allies have won the war, the film is like, “Oh yeah, so you know how we showed you little things here and there about how Turing’s life was affected by him being a homosexual? Here’s this.” And it gives us this heartbreaking scene between Cumberbatch and Knightley. We see some of Turing the man. But then they tie all the downer suicide elements together with some under-thought pre-end credits text blocks to showmake you read about how all that stuff ended. It’s unfortunate.

It took a few days of thinking about the film and me writing this paper to get there, but I’m realizing now that the part of The Imitation Game that did speak to me is what the film could have been. And that’s never a good thing. But yeah, The Imitation Game is OK. See it, I guess?

Student: Riley Stearns
Report Subject: The Imitation Game
Grade: B-

Riley Stearns is the writer/director of Faults (SXSW 2014) and the short The Cub (Sundance 2013). He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Mary and his dogs Didy and Ambrosius. You can visit his website here.