Only rarely has one man done so much for so many and yet gone so completely unrecognized for it in his lifetime.
Allen Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a Cambridge math professor when World War II broke out. When he heard about the government advertising for a cryptologist, he immediately applied, because even as a little boy, he loved solving puzzles. He even created his own secret code with his best friend at boarding school.
He’s one of those tortured geniuses who knew he was smarter than everybody else, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and becoming an adult didn’t help his emotional maturity, either. He was still downright offensive to people and haughtily condescending to those whom he considered his intellectual inferiors, which was, well, pretty much everybody.
He very nearly didn’t get chosen because he was such an insufferable egotist, even to the interviewer. When he’s introduced to the others who were hired along with him, he immediately dismisses them as second-rate minds who will only slow him down if he has to work with them. The only one he really gets along with is the only woman, Joan (Keira Knightley), who apparently possesses a beautiful mind, but her parents are more worried about the fact that she’s 25 and still unmarried. They almost don’t allow her to participate in the Bletchley Park compound because it wouldn’t be “decorous” for a young lady to keep constant company with all those men.
But Turing was nothing if not persistent; he even feigns romantic interest in her to satisfy her parents. Of course Turing realized he was homosexual, but he lived in a time and place where it was still not only considered “indecent,” but criminal. His “outing” would have resulted in his immediate dismissal from the project, a prospect which terrified him, because breaking the Enigma code had become his personal obsession.
The Germans developed the complex code and distributed special machines to convey it early on in the war. They were confident, because of the statistical unlikelihood that any person could figure out the literally millions of possible permutations, that it was “unbreakable.” Especially because they changed the code every day precisely at midnight. So the Bletchley cryptographers were spending inordinately laborious hours every day, for naught, and were becoming increasingly frustrated. And so were their superiors who threatened to trash the whole project as too impractical.
But Turing was thinking outside the box or, more precisely, about a box. He was busy developing a computing machine that could process the data much faster than the humans, but it was slow going, because he was having to assemble it himself, circuit by circuit, while everyone else laughed at him, snubbed him or accused him of non-cooperation with the others. He ignored them all. He could not be deterred, even when his lab was ransacked by British soldiers, armed with the false charge of spying for the Russians. (Actually, it was another one of the workers there who was handing secrets to Stalin, but somebody in MI6 decided that it needed to be done in order to assist their important ally, and surreptitiously, to do an end run around Churchill who hated Stalin and wouldn’t give him the time of day.)
The big break came, actually, because of human error: One of the Nazi radio operators decided, against orders, to start each day’s message the same way, as a kind of personal signature, which provided the one clue they needed to reduce the limitless possibilities, and thus help solve the Enigma. Now the struggle became about how to hold on to the secret that they had broken the German code, balancing between saving lives and not alerting the enemy. But that’s another story. This one is extraordinarily well told, with Cumberbatch portraying the tortured genius Turing in an Oscar-worthy performance. “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.