The other day I had the privilege of attending an advance screening of the forthcoming movie The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. I am not a movie reviewer, so I will not offer an evaluation of the movie -- other than to say that it is superb.
What particularly interests me is the story itself and the extraordinary range of deeply important issues it poses. The Imitation Game traces the real-life tale of Alan Turing, the brilliant and highly idiosyncratic British scientist and philosopher whose secret contributions during World War II saved the lives of an estimated 14 million individuals by enabling the Allies to win the war much sooner than would otherwise have been possible.
Still in his twenties, Turing led a small cohort of odd-ball cryptographers in a top secret effort to discover the secret of the Nazis' Enigma machine. It was through the use of this machine that the Nazis were able to send encrypted messages to their forces throughout the world. It was, at the time, the most effective and unbreakable code ever invented.
Operating out of Hut 8 in Bletchley Park, Turing's genius and persistence enabled him to invent what was essentially the world's first computer, which finally broke the secrets of the Enigma machine. Although other Allied nations were trying with dogged determination to achieve this outcome, only Turing succeeded.
But that was only the beginning. Even after breaking the Nazi code, the question arose of what to do with this secret knowledge. The goal was not just to break the code, but to use the information gained in order to thwart the Nazi war effort. This had to be done carefully and selectively, because if the Nazis realized that the English had penetrated their code they would simply stop using the Enigma machine.
Thus, to use their knowledge to best effect, the English had to exercise restraint. They could use the decoded information only in carefully selected circumstances. Frequently, they would have to forego its use and permit the Nazis to succeed in battles in order to protect what was now their secret weapon. Turing and his crew played a central role in figuring out how to use the information without giving away their secret.
With end of the war, the British decided to keep secret the fact that they had broken the Nazi code. This was strategic. Other nations, thinking that the Enigma machine was unbreakable, used it themselves for decades after World War II, without realizing that the British could decode their messages. Turning's extraordinary achievement therefore remained locked away in the national security closet in order to leave the British with this advantage.
Alan Turing was in the closet in another way, as well. He was a homosexual. A few years after World War II ended, he was arrested for gross indecency -- otherwise known as homosexual conduct. Although perhaps the greatest hero of World War II, Turing could not reveal the secret of his contribution. He was convicted and, rather than spend two years in prison, accepted the penalty chemical castration, a common punish for homosexuals under British law. The belief at the time was that homosexuality was a mental illness that could be "treated" in this manner.
Suffering from the ill effects of this barbarous medication, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1952, with his contributions to Western civilization still unknown. It remained so for almost half-a-century. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally issued a public apology for the "appalling" treatment of the man who, according to Winston Churchill, had made "the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany."
This is a deeply moving and powerful story. The Imitation Game , which opens in theaters in December, is a stunning movie.