Monday, 24 November 2014

The Imitation Game (5 Stars)

A film doesn't need action and a fast pace to be truly great. If you don't believe me, watch "The Imitation Game". To be honest, I didn't intend to go to see it. It's the true story of Alan Turing, the man who cracked the code of the German Enigma machine during World War Two. It hardly sounded like a thrilling adventure. But then I read reports that it's one of the top contenders to win next year's Best Film prize at the Academy Awards, so I thought I should check it out. Within the first ten minutes of the film I understood what the fuss was about. It's probably the best new film I've seen this year.

Since it's a true story about a famous person, I don't have to worry too much about spoilers, but I'll still limit myself to a brief plot outline. In the Second World War Germany used a machine to code the messages they sent to their fleets by morse code. The machine was called Enigma. One of the machines was stolen and smuggled to the England in 1939, but having the machine alone didn't help. The Enigma machine had settings which were changed every day at midnight, with 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible permutations. While other cryptologists tried to solve the encryption algorithms by hand, Alan Turing had the revolutionary idea to build a machine to crack the code. This machine can justifiably be considered to be the first computer. The text at the end of the film calls it a "Turing Machine", but this is actually a mistake. Alan Turing called his machine Christopher, named after his best friend when he was 16.

It took two years for the machine to crack the code, but there was a second level of difficulty. Nobody, not even Alan's boss, was allowed to know that he had been successful. The decrypted messages were sent to the British Secret Service, MI6, who then decided which messages should be ignored and which should be passed on to the military, claiming that the information had been leaked from other sources. The problem was that if the British acted upon all messages they encrypted the Germans would have known the Enigma code was cracked and they would have stopped using the machine.

At the end of the war Alan Turing was Britain's greatest unknown hero. His machine and all his notes were destroyed. He was forbidden to speak about what he had done during the war. He remained unknown, apart from academic publications, until 1951, when he was arrested after it was discovered he was a homosexual. Given a choice between imprisonment and chemical castration, he chose the latter. Two years later he committed suicide. It was a sad end for a great man.

After the film I had the chance to discuss the former treatment of homosexuals in England with some of my friends from the film club. Homosexuality remained a crime in England until 1967. One of my friends said that laws shouldn't be arbitrary, they should be governed by morality. Homosexuality obviously isn't immoral, so it shouldn't be illegal. I think his statement was wrong, in several ways. First of all, morality isn't an absolute. To my friend it seems obvious that homosexuality isn't immoral, but there are millions of others, even in England, who would disagree. Morals are strongly influenced by the religious community in which one grows up. If I follow a religion whose holy book says that homosexuality is evil, I shall develop a natural aversion to homosexuality and consider it immoral. Even indirectly this is the case. Even if I'm not religious, but I grow up in a place where homosexuals are made fun of, I'll have a feeling that it's wrong, which could go as far as thinking it's immoral.

Apart from this, laws aren't always a always a matter of right and wrong, they can be arbitrary. There can be other reasons to create laws. An example is taxation. It is required by law for various taxes to be paid to the government. Not paying these taxes is illegal and will lead to imprisonment or other forms of punishment. Does that mean that paying taxes is moral, and that not paying taxes is immoral? That would be a very strange application of morality. Law and morality may overlap, but they aren't identical, and it shouldn't be attempted to make them identical, even if we could agree on what's moral and what isn't.

Whether homosexuality is right or wrong is a more complex question than people on either side of the argument are willing to see. What I mean is, one camp says that it's obviously wrong, while the other camp says that it's obviously okay. The very fact that two groups should have such different views should make everyone clear that there's more to the question than they realise. Unfortunately, any attempt at dialogue is blocked by bigotry on both sides. The anti-gay camp says, "Our religion forbids it, so it's wrong, and we refuse to compromise". The pro-gay camp says, "Homosexuality doesn't hurt anyone, so it's okay, and we refuse to compromise". Both sides need to abandon their prejudices and listen to one another.

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