The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game, like many good films, follows the filmic formula created by the slew of its predecessors. Take your ingredients—a clean script, well-written dialogue and ripe actors—toss them in the bowl with a handful of significant history, some heart, and a dash of humor and let your concoction stew. If you’re lucky, if this combination is cooked just perfectly, the blend of star-power and story-importance just right, your film will end up an Oscar contender.
Only, there’s a big difference between an Oscar-contender and an Oscar-winner, and The Imitation Game will not win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It will not. Iñárritu’s Birdman or Linklater’s Boyhood can and will claim the golden statue on February 22nd.
Or at least they should.
What it comes down to is longevity. Award shows, especially ones as well-regarded as the Academy Awards, owe it to film history to choose the films that will stand the test of time. Will we remember the film in five years? Will we recall the grin on our face and the thoughts racing through our head as we watched it? Will we still be talking about it, comparing it to other films, deeming it the model to which others can aspire to? We’d better. That’s what I want in my Best Picture winner and that’s precisely why The Imitation Game won’t win, but Birdman very well might.
The Imitation Game tells the untold story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch)—master code breaker, mathematical genius and closeted homosexual during World War II tasked with the challenge of cracking Germany’s unbreakable code and helping the Allies win the war. Turing’s biggest obstacle is not Hitler, but other people’s ignorance, not only due to their inferior mental capacities, but also their inability to appreciate his contributions to the war effort while being blinded by the perceived-indecency of his illegal homosexuality.
Is The Imitation Game an important story? Yes. Does it deserve its telling? Of course. Sometimes, that is good enough. As a person who values stories, ones on the screen or otherwise, I appreciate moments that prove the necessity of storytelling and The Imitation Game is, arguably, a more necessary story than Birdman. The Imitation Game has the power to change people’s perspectives, make them approach history, diversity and humanity in a new way and that accomplishment is powerful. But Best Picture winners can’t simply be important. We’re not awarding the best “subject” or the best “topic” the golden statue. The award must also be about craft. The winner must push the boundaries. It must be a game-changer.
The Imitation Game did not twist the filmic-formula enough. It followed the rules. Birdman, on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of style, morphed the conventions of storytelling, and blurred the lines between truth and fiction in ways that engage its viewers beyond simply causing basic feelings of joy and anguish. Birdman follows Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) Hollywood comeback as he puts everything he has into a failing Broadway play to prove to himself, and the world, that he’s still relevant and not just the man in the bird costume from the blockbuster superhero flicks of his past. Shot in a way to look like one continuous take, peeking in on its cast of characters, sneaking up on them in their natural habitat, the camera doesn’t so much as highlight the action as it does chase it down. The result is interactive, involving the film’s viewers, begging them to analyze, urging them to change their mind, all the while playing with form in ways that support the film’s complexities. No two viewings will yield the same analysis. No two screenings will cause the viewer to reach the same conclusion at its completion. Birdman is art in the truest form, providing just enough to point you in a direction, but trusting you to fill in the blanks however you see fit.
Birdman doesn’t say too much. It doesn’t scream its meaning at you. It asks you to decipher for yourself. Its themes are vast and complex—truth versus reality, art versus commercialism, ego versus craft and at its center, the universal quest for validation. And what we come to see again and again and again, is that any attempts at validation don’t matter. Fame is not based on skill, or credence, or hard work, but entirely on chance. Riggan’s success and failure is not his own—it’s a result of critics, viral videos, and the shenanigans of his co-stars—it has nothing to do with talent. In an endless attempt to find truth, real truth, the curtain is simply raised on more and more illusion. What is real in show business? What is real in life? We’re all playing a role. The actors are simply playing a role of playing a role. We pretend to be chasing reality, but really we’re all just basking in illusion. “Truth is always interesting,” Mike (Edward Norton) tells Sam (Emma Stone) in one of their many games of Truth or Dare, but the film would say otherwise. Truth is only interesting because it’s unobtainable. We’re all meandering and chasing it down in endless loops and knots, just like Iñárritu’s camera, just like the maddening film industry, just like Riggan’s life. And for what? The struggle for validation never goes away. “You don’t matter,” Sam tells her father. No one does. The struggle is the only thing that does, it’s the only place where our story is truly authentic. Fame and recognition is a monster we can’t predict, a puzzle even Turing couldn’t solve.
It’s this expert mashing of form, craft, metaphor and plot that put Birdman a step above its competitors. Iñárritu’s film makes us think. Not just about our feelings or the world’s injustice but about our own illusions. It’s a spectacle that is not quickly forgotten, and it’s a film that will live on long after Turing’s tale has all been told.
That being said, in the Best Actor category, Cumberbatch may very well give Keaton a run for his money. Why? Because The Imitation Game depended on Cumberbatch’s performance in ways that Birdman did not rely on Keaton’s. For Imitation Game to work, we have to care about Alan Turing. Cumberbatch has to make us care—and this is not an easy task. On paper, Turing is not a likeable man. He’s unusual, unfeeling, rude, and doesn’t understand basic social functions. Cumberbatch is tasked with the challenge of not only making the audience care about this character, but he must also prove to us that a man seemingly without feeling, does in fact feel, does care, and make us feel for him. He has to make us want to defend him if anyone so much as gives him a dirty look or the film doesn’t work. We don’t need to like Keaton’s Riggan. We don’t have to identify with his struggle, we just need to recognize that he is struggling. If we don’t care about Turing, we don’t care about what he accomplished. If his final mistreatment doesn’t hit us hard, than the movie has no lingering statement. Birdman can make all the points it wants about truth, playing a role, validation, and the meandering web of lies we all weave to feel better about ourselves, whether or not Michael Keaton convinces us otherwise.
And that isn’t to say that Keaton isn’t phenomenal in the role. He’s more fun to watch than Cumberbatch, for sure. He throws in parts that are enormously entertaining for the audience. One memorable scene involves Riggan lying to Mike about being abused by his father when he was younger and Keaton plays this scene so expertly that we know because his acting is a little sub-par in the moment that Riggan is making this story up. His reveal that he was toying with Mike doesn’t come as a surprise. We knew Riggan was acting because Keaton’s acting was dialed back just enough. Keaton’s Riggan is not quite as good of an actor as Keaton himself is and that realization is immensely satisfying to an audience. His character trajectory is simply less mapped out which makes it harder to determine where Keaton started and where he ended and whether or not he was successful in that transformation.
Cumberbatch, on the other hand, plays a character completely fleshed out. He can approach the character with a clear cut vision and goal. It’s clear that Cumberbatch knew where he needed to get his audience, knew the path to follow.
Cumberbatch must convince us not only to like Turing, but to believe in him, feel for him, and ultimately understand him—the film’s central theme.
“What am I?” He asks the detective interrogating him at the completion of his story, “A Machine? Human? A war hero or a criminal?“
“I can’t judge you,” the detective replies.
“Then you’re of no use to me.”
All he wants is to be understood. He tells his story. He lays out all the facts, all the events, all he seeks in the end is not validation or praise, but acceptance. He lives in a world surrounded by inferior minds incapable of understanding what he does. He doesn’t need them to understand the math and the science, he needs them to understand why it all matters to him so much. And Benedict’s glance at the detective interrogating him who does understand, but can’t judge. Won’t judge. Not in the way that he needs him to tells us everything we need to know. He does understand. The very society he saved is the same one that destroys him. Why? Because they can’t allow themselves to understand. And Cumberbatch gets us there more seamlessly than the film’s writing alone would have.
The film needed Cumberbatch. It needed him and he performed expertly under that pressure.
Benedict Cumberbatch deserves the Best Actor win, but Birdman’s more than worthy of the gold for Best Picture.