Revenge of the Nerds: Science Guys on the Big Screen

Scene from The Imitation Game

Image courtesy of Black Bear Pictures/Bristol

Revenge of the Nerds:
Science Guys on the Big Screen
The Imitation Game and
The Theory of Everything

| published January 20, 2015 |

Film reviews by R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

It’s not hot news, but in case you’ve been asleep for the last 15 to 20 years, smart guys are back in vogue. Previous generations saw some of the best and brightest of the math geeks and science dorks either totally ostracized for their inelegant, bumbling social skills, or—conversely—herded onto remote desert camps to channel their top-one-percentile brains into the creation of atomic weapons, a sort of summer science camp with uranium.

A generation after the Manhattan Project, hundreds more were rounded up from grad schools and herded like feral cats into single metallic rooms in Houston and Cape Canaveral, where in less than a decade they took the comically explosive U.S. space program from the fireworks stage to sending a dozen human beings for walks on the surface of the moon. Without those guys with the slide rules, the pocket-protectors and the ill-fitting white short-sleeved shirts, neither Neil Armstrong nor Buzz Aldrin would have stepped onto the lunar surface, nor would Alan Shepard have been able to test his five-iron with golf balls, nor would he have been the first to broadcast from the Moon in living color in 1971.

That color camera was a direct descendant of the same color process invented by another lab-jacket, slide-rule jockey named Peter Carl Goldmark, who—while working at CBS in the 1940s—developed the field-sequential color method of TV transmission. Its first big test was at a live surgical demonstration for an Atlantic City convention of doctors, whereupon the vivid colors and extreme close-ups caused even experienced medical personnel to vomit, faint, or run from the room. But Goldmark’s high-quality and high-resolution eventually lost the battle to RCA and NBC’s rival system called compatible color, developed by early TV engineering geeks, Richard Kell and George H. Brown. The Battle of the Brains, as it were, a contest which was decided by the TV referees—then called the Federal Communications Commission. Wonks at war.

Then there is the ubiquitous microchip, those teeny tiny things we take for granted inside nearly everything. They are the collective work of scores, including the British scientist Geoffrey W.A. Dummer (imagine the ribbing he received in grade school), and the Americans Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce. The semi-conductor would not only assist with the aforementioned space race, but also become central to the great ushering-in of smaller and smaller computers; you can thank all three of them—and their pocket protectors filled with ballpoints—for that computer on your desk, that microwave oven, and those smart phones you spend so much time staring at.

Now, billionaires can be made overnight, often with little more to show for the freshly-printed mountain of cash other than a savvy understanding of how to write an algorithm which connects people to—well, anything. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma: by now we’ve seen the movie a hundred times over. Jobs in fact knew almost nothing about the technologies he crafted, except that in the end each product needed a certain cache’, and he knew it when he saw it. Gates succeeded, his numerous critics would argue, not through technical superiority, but by shrewdly exploiting the missing fine-print left off of IBM’s contractual paperwork, allowing him to embed his Windows Operating System into nearly all the Earth’s computers for now ‘til the end of time. Zuckerberg was in the right place at the right time to channel humanity’s penchant for both narcissism and time-wasting into a singular force called Facebook, an ocean-sized stream of “news” any idiot can use on a computer or phone. But all of these things took brains, the uber-brainy kind of grey-matter almost universally annoying to the rest of society.

Except when we look back and say things like, “how charming, that socially-inept geek turned out to save the world by inventing thus-and-so!”

Thus it was that after World War II, Winston Churchill often remarked that the 20th Century’s most epic military struggle could not have been won by the forces of good and decency were it not for two guys: Andrew Higgins and Alan Turing, obscure names to many people even then.

Higgins, a cantankerous hard-drinking engineer infamous for once inelegantly saying that “the U.S. Navy doesn’t know one damn thing about small boats,” managed nevertheless to craft a game-changing invention—a personnel boat that did not require harbors or docks—that tipped the scales and took the proposed Allied invasion of Normandy from a Hail Mary long-shot pass to within striking distance of measurable success. Churchill, Ike, Bradley, and scores of other World War II commanders gave Higgins rave reviews when the war was over. And thousands of American, British and Scottish soldiers will tell you Higgins' landing craft made the difference between certain death on a clouded, blood-soaked French beach, and life after that epic war.

On the other hand, most WWII vets had never heard the name of Alan Turing until many years later. During the war, none had. Turing was plucked from his mathematics schooling and secretly cloistered with other arithmetic savants during the darkest days of the war, when German U-boats were systematically and relentlessly sinking every Allied craft their commanders could track, including plenty of American ships carrying badly-needed supplies to England.

Turing, too, gets credit in the eyes of Churchill, FDR, Ike and others for turning the tide in a war that was not going well for the Allies. Turing and his team were asked to do the impossible: decode, or de-encrypt, German military messages; dispatches sent periodically all day, every day, directing every aspect of the German navies, armies, and Luftwaffe in their relentlessly efficient attacks and bombing runs. Those Nazi messages were sent using a typewriter-sized device called Enigma. The fact the Allies had captured an Enigma machine—or two—was not enough. Each night at midnight, the coders back in Berlin would change the sequence in the code. And with roughly 15 trillion possibilities (that’s 15 with 12 zeros after it), even the best mathematicians in the world were unable to unlock the code before the clock struck 12 each night.

The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, tells the story of Turing’s nearly infinite challenge—find a way to crack the Enigma code. Crack the code, and the Allies might have a fighting chance at beating the Nazis.

Like all biopics based on the life of a scientist, mathematician or engineer, we learn what we already know—these guys, and gals, were different almost from the start of their lives. Turing’s narrative easily fits the template: awkward, socially inept, restless and fidgety in class, a magnet for bullies. And the movie shows us a young Turing who, like many social misfits who happen to possess unlimited brainpower, very nearly wakes up each day in anticipation of placing that “kick me” sign on his own back. Still, his gift for numbers and equations is of such caliber that he is able to occasionally channel marginal social respect his way. Cumberbatch is well-cast as the Alan Turing who—by the time he is a young adult—has grudgingly taught himself minimal social skills, at least the kind effective enough to get his foot into the door, even if it is long enough merely to get himself kicked back out. Thus he finds his way into the offices of British Military Intelligence, where, with the quiet backing of a quasi-shadowy Major General Stewart Menzies (played with cool aplomb by Mark Strong), chief of the super-secretive MI6, Turing joins a small team of other math wizards whose mission is to crack the uncrackable Nazi code.

But Turing marches to a different drummer. Why waste time each day trying to outsmart Enigma and its trillions of variables, he asks? Turing’s goal—modest and reasonable in his mind, but outlandish and wasteful to the others in his group—is to build a machine capable of making rapid computations on a vast scale. So while his colleagues attempt to craft hand-formed equations and solutions, Turing draws sketches for a huge device made up of scores of cogs, wheels, spokes and wires, which, when plugged into messages coming from the Enigma, would have a remote shot at sorting through the millions of variables before midnight.

Predictably, Turing meets formidable resistance, not only from his team members—who make little effort to disguise the fact that they think of him as an ass—but also his superiors, who question the value of the hundred thousand English pounds Turing says he needs to complete his clunking, clinking contraption. For the top brass, it is a simple equation: lives are being lost, military and civilian, every day, every hour, every minute that passes while the war rages. Turing’s proposed machine is a fanciful departure from reality, and a colossal waste of money at that.

But, also predictably, Turing eventually wins the day: he lands on the winning side in the complex turf war at the highest levels of the British military and the Secret Service (the film hints that Churchill himself intervened in the squabble between Turing and his colleagues, who at the time included renowned mathematician Hugh Alexander and code expert John Cairncross). Matthew Goode plays Hugh Alexander—dashing, handsome, socially graceful, and the ideal and instant foil to Turing. Cairncross is played by Allen Leech; and it will be Cairncross who will play a pivotal role later in the narrative when he is revealed to be the man slipping some decoded information to the Soviets at the height of the war. The movie takes some apparent liberties with this subplot, and even hints that Menzies was not only aware that Cairncross was a double-agent, but even encouraged his presence on the team as a counter-balance to Churchill’s stubborn paranoia of the Russians; the Russians, after all, were fighting their own desperate struggle against the Germans on the other side of the continent.

The Imitation Game tells its complex story in layers, a three-way overlapping narrative which includes Turing’s childhood and schooling—including his earliest awareness of his homosexuality—beset by bullies and social awkwardness; his last years, which include his arrest for indecency in 1952 and at a time when Britain’s conservative laws forbade homosexuality; and the wide tract of the middle years, including his timely arrival at the doorstep of military intelligence. Not long after Turing takes the lead role on his team, supplanting Hugh Alexander as supervisor, he meets Joan Clarke—cypher-savant and crossword wiz extraordinaire—and she becomes not only a crucial part of the team, but also the subject of great affection by Turing.

Scene from The Imitation GameSince it is a matter of history, I’m not spoiling anything for moviegoers when I reveal that Turing’s machine eventually works, though not without setbacks, heavy bureaucratic resistance, and the constant threat that the brass will shut the project down. Working alongside a couple of engineers and mechanics, the team is able to test the machine. At first it produces no demonstrable results. Infuriated that so much money has been spent on a machine which has so far decoded no Nazi messages, the team is given a deadline—make it work or face being tossed from the program. A chance encounter in a pub with a young woman whose war job is to listen to—and transcribe—those maddeningly oblique Nazi messages, gives Turing and his team the final piece of the puzzle, and within hours they are able to tentatively crack the German cypher. Recognizing the presence of a few recurring themes, they are able to feed Turing’s machine a handful of phrases already presumably decoded. From there, success quickly follows.

But no good deed goes unpunished, and the moral consequences of what they have done are instantly clear: if they immediately set about altering all the movements of all Allied ships and cruisers, and they instantly send the RAF into the skies to thwart the Luftwaffe before every air attack, the Germans would know that the Enigma had been compromised and the game would be up. The actual machinations between British Intelligence, the British military, and the Americans and the other Allies has never been fully revealed even decades later, but the film supposes what most war historians have long assumed—that the hyper-accurate intelligence harvested from Turing’s machine each day and each night was used sparingly, carefully, even surgically, to win the war systematically without giving Berlin a reason to suspect that their cypher machine was anything but unconquered.

Turing’s machine—which he has nicknamed Christopher, an apparent reference to his first pre-teen schoolboy crush—wins the complex code game, and thus plays one of the most vital roles in winning the war—an epic battle which by no means included a certain or pre-ordained victory for the Allies. After the war, Turing continues to work with ever-more advanced computers—machines which would be the forerunner of the iconic IBM computers used by governments and businesses in later years. But this brings no fortune or great glory to Turing, who eventually runs headlong into the wrath of Britain’s ultraconservative laws outlawing homosexuality. A British court gives him the option of prison time, or, a harsh regimen of hormone therapy coupled with a sort of house arrest. His security clearances and government accesses are revoked, and in essence he works alone on his computers and devices in his flat until his death by suicide a year later.

The film cuts a lot of corners and plays it fast and loose with some facts. It also glosses over the more nuanced and complex role Turing played in a variety of other aspects of the development of early computers and advanced mathematical processes and theories. It also only barely touches on his famed Turing Test, a canon—which became more of a challenge—he set forth early in the development of computers: could a computer fool a human into thinking it was another human? Variations on that great technological challenge have been played out on a variety of public and academic stages for decades, with varying results.

There are also a few moments of scenery-chewing theatrics, incidents portrayed for the screen which were surely not as dramatic in real life. Commander Alistair Denniston, for example, played with icy humorlessness by veteran actor Charles Dance, was surely not the intimidating, threatening heavy portrayed in the movie. Many in his family and some of his Bletchley Park colleagues have even gone as far as to organize a media campaign to reverse the effects of how he was portrayed, and have pointed to the memories of those who worked with the powerful man—Denniston died in 1961—at the top of the project to show that he was not only dedicated to saving lives, but also kind and generous to those he worked with in the Herculean effort to crack the Nazi code.

But such over-the-top filmmaking liberties have come to be the norm in the biopic, especially when the subject matter flirts with material deemed too dense for the average Jane and Joe in the audience. Forget the more nuanced view of real history; drama is surely more fun, and sells more tickets.

But aside from the historical shortcuts and the factually dubious incidents, The Imitation Game is an entirely watchable and addicting movie, and educational as well—most especially for those of us who live in the age of the ubiquitous computer has become the central fact of our lives. For fans of the fact-based biopic, this film is the mother-lode of fun and enjoyability. Cumberbatch so easily slips into the role of Turing that we quickly forget he is an actor. Other standouts include Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke, Mark Strong as Menzies, and Charles Dance as Denniston. This is one sure to be a favorite of the high-brow Academy Awards voters, and deservedly so.

But The Imitation Game is not the only holiday release of a big screen biography of a science guy.

Another entirely watchable film at the theaters: The Theory of Everything, based on the book by Jane Hawking, directed by James Marsh, and illuminating the life of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. It stars two standouts sure to be brighter stars in the galaxy of British screen actors: Eddie Redmayne (as Stephen Hawking), and Felicity Jones (as Jane Hawking).

Like The Imitation Game, this Hawking biography also glosses over much complex territory. One of the central complaints about The Theory of Everything—now well-tread for those who follow film reviews of fact-based events—is that this movie exerts much energy toward an understanding of the complexities of the relationships between Stephen and Jane, between these young parents and their children, and also with the dueling love-triangle subplots; conversely, the movie spends precious little time delving into the “science” aspects of arguably the most famous of all living physicists.

Scene from The Theory of EverythingIn fact, when we first saw it at the theater, I waited almost at the edge of my seat for each of Hawking’s great Aha! moments to be revealed and illuminated, but found instead frequent disappointment when the total time spent with a new discovery or a new theory amounted to little more than a few seconds of screen time, as in “by the way, I made a huge science discovery today.” Any film purporting to tell the life of Hawking would surely find the task a challenge, but this movie so glossed over the quantum leaps in thinking wrought by Hawking as to sometimes seemingly reject science altogether—a perhaps understandable quirk of the biography if one interprets it through the lens of Jane’s religious faith and devotion to family, and the gentle back-and-forth teasing between the largely agnostic Stephen, and the believer, Jane. The film is based on her book, after all, and not on Stephen Hawking’s own books or published articles.

Having said that, go see this movie anyway. It is well worth it to experience it on the large screen in all its visual glory and beauty.

Again, for those who shun science, or for those who have lived in a cave for a few decades, Stephen Hawking is a Cambridge cosmologist and physicist, as well as an author of the best sellers The Grand Design and A Brief History of Time. He has walls of awards and citations, among them a lifetime membership in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, membership in the Royal Society of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

His book A Brief History of Time may be one of the biggest-selling books on science ever published (it remained on the Sunday Times best seller list for 237 straight weeks, a record-breaking run). It has been translated into at least 39 languages, and has sold more than 10 million copies. The book's premise was simple: explain to the layperson some of the greatest mysteries of astrophysics; gravity, black holes, light cones, the big bang, the big contraction, and even time travel.

Like his fellow Englishman Turing, Hawking was a prodigy in school. He started his college studies at Oxford early, as a teenager, younger than almost all of his classmates in the advanced coursework; he complained often that he was bored by the lack of challenge. His grades were acceptable but not exemplary; Hawking often preferred to leapfrog past the basic facts and the rote memorization which were the stuff of most students’ days. His love was for the theoretical. Though he sometimes questioned himself in the context of his average grades on tests, his professors clearly knew he was capable of much greater things.

But unlike Turing, who was socially awkward and therefore sometimes impatient with people of lesser intellect, Hawking was a genteel, affable and likeable sort, if not shy and a bit aloof—but well-respected by his friends for his often self-effacing and self-deprecating humor. He is also famously fond of breaking down the complexities of the universe in such a way that almost anyone could understand. He met his future wife Jane (his first wife, as it turns out) while he was still in graduate school. Not long afterwards, the young Hawking learns that he suffers from a rare form of early-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS—more popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The first doctors who work with him are blunt: he will live only a few years, at most.

But in fact, as we all know, Hawking is still alive today, though he is confined to a motorized wheelchair and must use a variety of ever-more-sophisticated speech recognition devices to communicate. An important undercurrent of the film is Hawking’s sometimes difficult and painful adaptations to his deteriorating condition, and the parallel story of how Jane assists him, encourages him, and shepherds him through each new chapter of his life.

Director Marsh, working with set designers and costumers, has produced a lavish, sumptuous motion picture—elegant and layered in its photographic approach to each new decade. The film is a marvel of period time-travel, appropriate perhaps especially for a biography of a physicist. And like The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything packs a lot of emotional baggage into the business of science and discovery.

Then there is the occasionally uncomfortable business of sex and romance. The film handles this with delicacy, and also sanitizes what those who know Hawking knew at the time: that Jane had what amounted to a platonic affair with the organist and choir director of her church, a likeable and well-meaning fellow named Jonathan Hellyer Jones. Jones, in fact, becomes a de facto member of the Hawking household, helping with the kids, assisting Stephen physically, and helping to manage the daily affairs and travels. If Jane and Jonathan have a genuine physical love interest, Stephen—we learn—can accept that, as long as Jane maintains her allegiance to Stephen as her first love. Later, Hawking falls in love with his speech therapist and nurse, Elaine Mason, a strong-willed friend who quickly develops into his ad hoc protector and muse. The result is, inevitably, divorce from Jane, the woman with whom he has spent 30 years, and a subsequent marriage to Elaine. (Though the movie only briefly touches on it, Stephen will eventually divorce Elaine, and return to a normalized relationship with his first wife, their kids and grandchildren).

The film also follows a sort of smaller subplot—that of Hawking’s relationship, if any, with God and heaven. Hawking’s deep scientific beliefs often trump his occasional flirtations with the notion of a high being or an intelligent design. Even in his famous book, he seems ambivalent and unsure: in one chapter he makes it clear that to fully understand the grand theories of physics and time, would be “to know the mind of God.” In this sense he leaves the door open to a higher power—the architect, in a sense, of the elaborate and beautiful universe. On the other hand, in the same book, Hawking suggests that the universe and its clock-like mechanics and natural orders would likely render God unnecessary, even redundant. Even in those moments when Hawking acknowledges the possibility of God, he suggests that an explanation of the universe can be found without incorporating God into the study. Science, in other words, can progress with or without God.

The movie’s weakness, as I have already mentioned, is its glazing over of those discoveries and theories and leaps which placed Hawking at the forefront of contemporary theoretical physics: his sometimes daring, often radical, but always transformative ideas on everything from black holes to time travel to wormholes. If you plan to see this movie for a deeper understanding of the “science” part of Hawking’s legacy, you will be a little disappointed. But if you can disregard this perhaps minor flaw, then you will be deeply moved by a remarkable and enjoyable biographical movie about one of the greatest minds of our time.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Interstellar: Science, Sci-Fi, and the Humanity Thing; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 19, 2014.