“The biopic is broken.” Every time a movie like The Imitation Game—that is, every time a biopic that is slated as a “prestige” or “Oscar bait” film, preferably about someone whose story is inspirational but tragic and not especially well known—is released, I hear something to that effect. These films, the detractors say, exist solely to tug at the heartstrings of the middlebrow Academy voters, so they stick to well-defined tropes and tried-and-true formulas, making an actually-good movie nigh impossible.
This line of thinking seems to me to be extremely shortsighted, even elitist. Hollywood has long relied on defining a genre through repetitious syntax/semantics and then, once the “tropes” of the genre have been coded, varying and rearranging them to form new pictures. Could one seriously say that MGM musicals, Warner Brothers gangster films, film noirs, or westerns don’t generally follow a predefined narrative formula? This is not to say that Bennett Miller is John Ford or that The Imitation Game is Bringing up Baby or All That Heaven Allows, although we also don’t have the benefit of years, even decades of scholarship telling us that Ford, Hawks, and Sirk, were in fact auteurs who, despite initial appearances, were working at the highest level of cinematic art.
There are, of course, a few issues here. Most obviously, The Imitation Game, distributed by The Weinstein Company, is not a Hollywood film. I would contend that they have long since operated in the same way as Hollywood, looking for profit and awards (which should translate to more profit among a certain type of moviegoer) that they can then use to fund another ostensibly independent film, which will hopefully turn more profit. The only difference from Hollywood is that The Weinstein Company is doing this with the mid-budget (maybe the lower end of the “mid-budget” bracket) films instead of with $200 million blockbusters. On the other hand, this paradigm shift has meant that the mid-budget (and in fact, pretty much any film that isn’t supposed to gross one billion dollars) film is controlled more by the artists than the distributors, making the very notion of the auteur increasingly meaningless. If even Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein can’t recut a film now without a great deal of outrage, it goes without saying that the “author” of the work is the director (at least to the same extent that it ever is or has been), and so the questions turn back on them. With this increased freedom, why did Graham Moore write such a by-the-numbers “prestige picture,” and why did Morten Tyldum direct it in such an unmarked, matter-of-fact way, without the stylistic flourish and personal stamp that marks the films of, say, Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson?
It’s a valid question, to be sure, and it may be the biggest reason that The Imitation Game will never be Bringing up Baby or All That Heaven Allows. But it also seems to me that if the biopic today is a remnant of another time, or at least functions as one—not much different from the “classicism” that some praise Clint Eastwood for, at least in my understanding—that knocking it for its adherence to formula is akin to knocking a musical because “people don’t just break out into song and dance.”
So, how does The Imitation Game hold up on its own terms, as a biopic/”prestige picture”? Discussions of biopics always seem to start and end with questions of historical accuracy, which I generally do not care about. However, The Imitation Game turns Alan Turing, reportedly a sociable, humorous, and well-liked person, into a border-line Asperger’s case. The issue here is not the historical inaccuracy per se: it’s the decision to make the protagonist less interesting and less individuated. He stands alongside the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network as a stereotypical computer “geeks” who don’t know how to hold a conversation, about as easy, tired, and false a cliché as they come.
There are also some structural issues with the script. For 90 minutes the film is about creating a computer that can crack the Nazi code, but after that is completed the film takes an abrupt left turn and places Turing’s homosexuality front-and-center for 25 brief minutes. Many have criticized the film for shying away from homosexuality, with the complete lack of sex scenes (and even flirting) being seen as a way of “straightening” the story. But really, The Imitation Game is about Turing’s loss of first love, a mind to equal his who accepted rather than tried to change and reform Turing, and how Turing tried his entire life to recreate that love. His computer, named “Christopher” after his boyhood love and friend, is a tribute in more than name. It—or rather he—is a unique mind, one who thinks unlike humans, just as all human think unlike one another, as the interrogation scene alluding to the “Turing Test” suggests, and that, despite not being “human,” is a thinking, working mind. Turing as a boy asks Christopher how decoding a cipher is any different from talking, in which people always say something but mean something else, which the listener has to discern. Similarly, a machine and a human may think differently, but all humans think differently from each other, and what “Christopher” can tell Turing is just a cipher needing decoding, just as human language would be. Turing tells or asks “Christopher” one thing, gives him a code, for instance, and it’s up to Christopher to decide what Turing is telling or asking. In this sense, The Imitation Game is always about one man’s love for another man, not one man’s love for a computer. It is a homosexual love story through-and-through, which is why the film’s abrupt change of direction and refocusing is so jarring and unnecessary.
This shift is a symptom of a film trying to cover too much ground, a problem that hinders it elsewhere. The scene in which Peter Hilton urges the group to relay intelligence to prevent an attack on the ship on which his brother is deployed is out-of-place in a film that is never about the human cost of war. In a different film, it could be a centerpiece, but here, it’s a heavy-handed, trying piece of sentiment that is turned into another “Eureka!” moment for Turing (in this case, the need for a statistics-based analysis of which intelligence to act on and which to ignore). Similarly, a subplot about a Soviet agent adds nothing to the film, as if it is included solely for the sake of “historical accuracy.”
But elsewhere, the story shines. It is well-paced and intelligently edited (although it is occasionally too on-the-nose, serving up an explanation too quickly and over-relying on the “Eureka!” advancement), and solid (but unspectacular) performances and good humor keep the story moving. There is also a brief scene in which Turing says in voiceover that when most people think of World War II they think of soldiers fighting in the trenches, but for his group it was people sitting in a room running calculus deciding what should be acted upon. This scene, however minor, is crucial to the film: it places World War II as the beginning of the development of war as we are beginning to understand it now, as men in another room, hundreds or thousands of miles away, making decisions about human lives, acting or not acting on intelligence, using drones or not using drones, choosing to kill or not kill an American citizen with alleged ties to terrorist organizations.
So as a biopic, The Imitation Game has its highlights and its flaws, just like any movie does. But asking it to be hyper-stylized, to utilize some of the tenets of art cinema, to highlight or at least include identifiable postmodern elements seems to me to be barking up the wrong tree. That isn’t to say that this tree is the best tree in the forest, but I can’t help but wonder why the same kind of criticism isn’t leveled so heavily on a film like Snowpiercer. It’s scripting and acting is far worse than anything in The Imitation Game, its political point is far more heavy-handed (three uses of a particular line has nothing on 30 minutes of nonstop monologues), and it offers nothing new or noteworthy. Is it because the action genre does not have the aura of prestige and importance around it that a TWC-distributed biopic does, or because Snowpiercer is directed by a major/recognized auteur who deserves the benefit of the doubt and whose films, implicitly, must be better because they are the efforts of a respected director?
Perhaps, perhaps not. I fully expect accusations of straw-manning and of accusing people of dishonest motives for their personal likes/dislikes. I aim merely to create conversation where one is needed, as the unquestioned dismissal (and pre-dismissal) of an entire genre is doubtlessly useless.