The Imitation Game [Script]

turing-bio-imitationIt is not often that a script penetrates my critic’s veil. Usually, I am able to hide a great deal of my feelings about Important Things behind this veil so that I may judge a script based on the merits of the craft of screenwriting ALONE.

This is interesting ground for a reviewer to stand on. For instance, you would not know [until just this minute] that I am a hardcore political liberal from reading my screenwriting blog. By forcing my opinions behind this veil, I am able to read a script that contradicts my personal beliefs without prejudgment. If it is a legitimately excellent example of screenwriting, I will rate it as an excellent example.

I digress because I knew [beforehand] many of the details of Alan Turing’s life. I knew he was gay, that he was chemically castrated by the British Government for being gay, and that he ended his own life shortly after this chemical castration. The idea that an intelligence as magnificent as Turing’s could be so discriminated against automatically penetrates my critical veil because it so severely appalls my sense of justice.

Summed, this story was guaranteed to get through my cult of impartiality. There is nothing I like more than the destruction of injustice. I feel like [no matter what The Imitation Game had been relative to screenwriting skill]
it is almost impossible that I would not have liked it.

Imagine my surprise when I finished the script and realized that it was [veil or no veil] one of the five best scripts I’ve ever read.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) The script has a few bouts of exposition that pop up whenever WW2 stuff needs to be explained. Like this passage from pages 17-18:

COMMANDER DENNISTON (CONT’D)
Our WRENs intercept thousands of
radio messages a day. But to the
lovely young ladies of the Women’s
Royal Navy, they’re nonsense. It’s
only when you feed them back into
Enigma that they make sense.

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
But you have an Enigma machine.
It’s right there.

COMMANDER DENNISTON
Yes. Polish intelligence smuggled
one out of Berlin.

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
So what’s the problem? Just put the
intercepted messages back in to
Enigma and —

ALAN TURING
— It’s not that simple, is it? Just
having an Enigma machine doesn’t
help you decode the messages.

COMMANDER DENNISTON
Very good, Mr. Turing. To decode a
message, you need to know the
machine’s settings. The Germans
switch settings every day, promptly
at midnight.
Alan looks at the machine carefully.
ALAN TURING
Five rotors. Six plugboard cables.

COMMANDER DENNISTON
Yes.

ALAN TURING
That’s…

HUGH ALEXANDER
Five —

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
— thousand million —

PETER HILTON
— No no it’s — I’ve got it —

HUGH ALEXANDER
— Million, million —

KEITH FURMAN
— In the millions, obviously —

CHARLES RICHARDS
— Obviously —

ALAN TURING
— Over one hundred thousand million
million possible settings.

All eyes turn to Turing: Wow.

COMMANDER DENNISTON
… Very good.

HUGH ALEXANDER
One hundred fifty nine, if you’d
rather be exact about it.
Everyone looks at Hugh now.

HUGH ALEXANDER (CONT’D)
One five nine with eighteen zeroes
behind it. Possibilities. Every
single day.

Yet they never grate because the author does a masterful job of ensuring they don’t. In the passage cited above Mr. Moore distracts away from the exposition by making the information into a mathematical pecking order contest. So, even though we are learning about Enigma, and the vastness of the challenge ahead of Turing, [both through exposition] we are enjoying what we learn.

Of course, the main exposition comes by way of the VO from Turing that runs the length of the script. As I have said a dozen times before, Voiceovers are ALWAYS exposition. Twice I have come across scripts that featured VOs that weren’t exposition. Both were by the Coen Brothers. (1). Now, I’ve read three.

The VO in The Imitation Game is ingenious. It combines Turing’s work, his personal life, and this script about his work and his personal life into an impressive concoction of metafictional meaning. This VO is the third prong in the argument for why I [and others like me] can’t legislate screenwriting. We all know how I am [and the others like me are] inclined to say things like:

Don’t ever, no matter what, use a voiceover.

Because this is really good advice. Most people who disregard this advice and plaster their script with the VO technique don’t even realize that the reason it is proscribed against is because it is infallibly exposition.

Fortunately for the state of artistic expression, some people do get that fact about VO. Graham Moore is one of those people. His VO is an instance of playing The Actual Imitation Game. We, the audience, are in our chairs to pass judgment on Alan Turing.

The VO device, as it was used in this script, is fucking brilliant.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Well, there is a ton of subtext in this script. Most of it centers on Turing’s inability to relate to other people as if they were human beings. He can’t understand them. Much of it is impressive, and I recommend [obviously] you read this script if you haven’t read it already.

The following from 29-30 is a perfect subtextual example:

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
(to Alan)
The boys… We were going to get
some lunch?
(Alan ignores him)
Alan?

ALAN TURING
Yes.

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
I said we were going to get some
lunch?
(Alan keeps ignoring him)
Alan?

ALAN TURING
Yes.

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
Can you hear me?

ALAN TURING
Yes.

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
I said we’re off to get some lunch.
(silence)
This is starting to get a bit
repetitive.

ALAN TURING
What is?

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
I had asked if you wanted to have
lunch with us.

ALAN TURING
No you didn’t. You told me you were
getting lunch.

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
Have I offended you in some way?

ALAN TURING
Why would you think that?

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
Would you like to come to lunch
with us?

ALAN TURING
When is lunchtime?

HUGH ALEXANDER
(calling out)
Jesus Christ, Alan, it’s a bleeding
sandwich.

ALAN TURING
What is?

HUGH ALEXANDER
Lunch.

ALAN TURING
I don’t like sandwiches.

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
Nevermind.

HUGH ALEXANDER
John was trying to be nice.

ALAN TURING
How?

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
Let it go.

HUGH ALEXANDER
You know to pull off this
irrascible genius routine, you
actually have to be a genius.

PETER HILTON
Who’s hungry? Let’s go.

HUGH ALEXANDER
Bye, Alan.

The guys gather their things and walk out…

ALAN TURING
I’m hungry.

… They turn.

JOHN CAIRNCROSS
What?

ALAN TURING
Peter asked if anyone was hungry. I
am.
(they stare at him)
May I have some soup, please?

For my money though, the best instance of all this subtextual work was delivered in one exchange, exactly three lines long. From page 78:

ALAN TURING
(bad American accent)
“Hello, my dear.”

JOAN CLARKE
Ha! That’s the worst accent I’ve
ever heard.

ALAN TURING
You have no idea. Americans really
do speak that way.

Again, that is just brilliant.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) No script is going to do so well in the first two parts and fail here. The Imitation Game will not be the exception that proves the rule.

In other words, I loved the characterizations in this screenplay.

As I read I became convinced [by the author’s unique depiction of her] that Joan Clarke would make a great subject for her own film. As I think about it now, I feel almost the same way about Hugh, and Menzies, and even Soviet spy John. This script overflows over with great characterization:

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

I was a little worried when I opened the PDF and ran into a wall of VO. Fortunately, the words Turing speaks in this monologue are OFFENSIVE. He is literally berating us [all of us] as inadequate… of course I am going to pay attention if you tell me you don’t think I can. I will do it for no other reason than my need to prove you wrong about me.

So [and again], brilliant choice on Mr. Moore’s part. If you’re going to introduce your subject in such a ho-hum way, have that subject insult the hell out of the audience. You’re guaranteed to not lose any readers.

By the middle of page 3 we’re following Detective Nock and Sgt. Staehl as they investigate a robbery at Turing’s home. This scene wraps up with this line [from page 7]:

ALAN TURING
Gentlemen, I don’t think you could
figure out who broke into my house
if he walked up to you right now
and spit in your bloated face. What
I could really use at the moment is
not a bobby but a good cleaning
lady. So unless one of you has an
apron in your car that you’d like
to put on and lend me a hand, I’d
suggest that you file your reports
and leave me alone.

In other words, it ends with Turing continuing to be an insufferable asshole. The narrative exploits this fact for momentum. From the next page:

DETECTIVE NOCK
I’m suggesting that Alan Turing is
hiding something.

The implication is that if Turing had been a little less condescending Nock never wonders if he’s hiding anything.

We then leave the present [of the story—1951] and enter a new timeframe [London 1939], and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Holy Christmas, this script is breaking two iron clad rules of screenwriting in the first 10 pages:

1. Don’t do Voice Over
2. Don’t switch timeframes

AND….AND on top of that it is BREAKING the all time number one incontrovertible rule of our shared Fight Club:
#1 All Time Screenwriting Rule Not to Break:

Don’t write an unlikeable protagonist.

And yet… and yet I was captivated by these first 10 pages.

Only because all these broken rules are hard to explain now that I’m writing up my review [I can’t imagine what the studio readers felt like who had to write up coverage reports]:

16 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) First, let’s talk about the complexity of the structure Mr. Moore tackles. He actually tries to juggle three timeframes. We have:

1. Sherborne school for boys – 1927
2. Turing’s involvement in the British Enigma Program 1939-1945
3. The Robbery Investigation and aftermath from 1951-1954

At all costs, I would avoid a script with this three tiered structure. Each epoch must contain a truth which pays off something in the ensuing epoch, until the final truth is learned which reveals the theme. My god, that is biting off a lot. If The Imitation Game just managed to continue to chew with all those timeframes in its mouth, it would be impressive. The fact that it takes the three tiered challenge seriously, and pays off each level with a truth learned in the level before… that is what puts it in my top five.

We’ll examine the moving parts in chronological order.

1927

At first glance, the reveal from this timeline is that Christopher, Turing’s first love, dies when Turing is 15. However, the real reveal is a bit more subtle. From page 114:

HEADMASTER
He had bovine tuberculosis, as I’m
sure he told you. This mustn’t be a
shock, but all the same, I’m sorry.

YOUNG ALAN
You’re mistaken.

HEADMASTER
Did he not tell you? He’s been sick
for a long time. Knew this was
coming soon, but he had a stiff
upper lip about it. Good lad.

ON ALAN’S FACE: Christopher never told him.

The reveal here is that Turing loved Christopher and Christopher never told him. A lot is left to the subtext [as it should be] but it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see that Young Turing internalized the message of his Christopher experience with great industry:

Human beings are impossible to understand.

If people weren’t impossible to understand, then Christopher would have told Young Turing that he was going to die. Or, Young Turing would have guessed. Since neither of these obtained, the theme of the first timeframe is the just stated:

Human beings are impossible to understand.

1939-1945

This timeframe is the most difficult because it contains the surface storyline of the success Turing has in breaking the Enigma code. There are plot points to that mystery and, really, it is a damn fine piece of history and [like the life of Joan Clarke] probably worthy of a film unto itself. If we were trying to tap the historicism in this timeframe we’d go with something like this from page 60:

ALAN TURING
There are more important things in
life than being liked.

JOAN CLARKE
Breaking Enigma?

ALAN TURING
Yes.

JOAN CLARKE
What’s the point of breaking Enigma
if you’ve no one to share it with?

ALAN TURING
That’s a stupid question. I will
have broken Enigma.

In which Turing gives the Everest defense. ‘I climbed the mountain because it was there.’
I don’t feel that line is the key to this timeframe though. I’m inclined to go with this from page 92:

PETER HILTON
It looks like Enigma wasn’t perfect
after all, then.

ALAN TURING
No, don’t you see? It is. That’s
the whole point. All this time
we’ve been trying to beat the
machine; but we should have been
trying to beat the people who use
the machine. Enigma is perfect.
It’s human beings who are flawed.

And why are human beings flawed? Because– they are impossible to understand.

1951-1954

I believe this exchange from 118 sums up the film’s present:

DETECTIVE NOCK
Why didn’t you stop it?

ALAN TURING
Because none of this matters.
Arrest me. Convict me. I have my
work. I have Christopher.

DETECTIVE NOCK
Can we get someone to testify for
you? Friends? Family? Anyone you’re
close to?

This is where the scene ends. Detective Nock’s asks a series of questions. Turing makes no response to Nock because there is no one he is close to.

If you look at the timeframes in this movie as a syllogism, The Imitation Game makes the following argument.

If human beings are flawed then it is better to live alone.
Human being are impossible to understand [they are flawed].

Therefore:
It is better to live alone.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) A homosexual in homophobic times will, necessarily, be driven toward loneliness. Add onto this initial deficiency an inability to decipher secondary human communication that borders on the autistic, and you will be certain to burn your protagonist at the stake of your story. I can only say that I wish we humans weren’t so incomprehensibly intolerant, and I wish this weren’t based on a true story because:

This is heart-breaking protagonist to engine matching:

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I find the pinch point of this story to come on page 97:

ALAN TURING
The hardest time to lie is when the
other person is expecting to be
lied to.

This is the moment where Turing realizes that breaking the code was always going to be a Catch 22. If you break it, the Germans will know, and then they will stop using it… so then there was no point in breaking it.
My greatest criticism of this script is this is weak… as far as pinch points go. What we want is some math that works out with no remainder. You see how what we’re given almost works:

Like Enigma, if Turing cracks the code for humans, they will know, and then they will stop, I don’t know, being mean to him, maybe? No, that doesn’t quite work. This script just misses perfection because its pinch point doesn’t perfectly square with its theme.

3 out of 5 points.

Part D) I take that theme of to be:

Humans are irredeemable animals.

It is effectively demonstrated by the plot points [premises] of the script. You will recall that when I listed the above statement as the theme of The Counselor, I cussed out Mr. McCarthy. I will not be doing the same with Mr. Moore. His script demonstrates this theme without resorting to fantasy-drug-violence. His script demonstrates this theme with the violent monstrosity of real fucking life.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) This script defines what it means to be unique. If you don’t have a copy, get one. And start reading.

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing matches the story design. I read somewhere that this is Mr. Moore’s first script. If that is true, Mr. Moore is a force of nature.

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? Did it make us want to be a better person? (10 points)

The Imitation Game will crush your spirit, but not in the way that violence-trash like The Counselor crushes your spirit. It forces us to examine ourselves. WE DID THIS to Turing, not the British Government, or paralyzing homophobia: WE DID THIS. Once you grapple with your own culpability in the human experience, it makes you want to do better.

I love The Imitation Game for crushing my spirit. It made me more vigilant of humanity’s greatest flaw:

Intolerance of Difference.

Total Score: 94

Footnotes:

1. Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men.

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7 responses to “The Imitation Game [Script]

  1. I was wondering, did you see this in the theater? I have a small criticism of this movie that I’ll posit mostly to play devil’s advocate.

    I saw this movie with my parents and brother over Christmas. One caveat is that we were familiar with the Turing story already as my brother has been a coder/hacker since he was about 10 (he works for Google now) and read books on him as a teen, and my dad is a WWII buff, and I had read the script a while ago. So granted, this eliminated any surprises the story might have held…although in my case, reading a script beforehand does nothing to decrease my joy over the execution of a great film.

    So, was this a great film? While we all came out agreeing we had seen a good movie, I think we all also agreed we did not see something that would stay with us (previous years we saw Django and Wolf of Wall Street, both movies we all agreed WOULD stay with us) Imitation Game did not crush our spirit, as you put it. It was not the type of movie we would drop what we were doing to watch if it came on TV.

    I have a theory why, and it relates to craft, so it’s probably worth talking about. It is something I try to consider when writing, and that is this, in Barishable form:

    Does the message fit the medium? (5 points!)

    No doubt, there is something to be gained from studying screenwriting in a vacuum, because screenplays are (sometimes) created in vacuums. However, this story didn’t feel cinematic to me. I think this movie could have been a play…and I think the intimacy with the characters in that medium might have served the story better.

    It’s important to remember when writing a screenplay that the medium you are writing for is moving images — maximize your medium.

    • The movie did not match the script for me. You can tell how muted my enthusiasm is for the movie in my review of it as a stand-alone [versus the exuberance which punctuates the script review].

      I haven’t seen Birdman yet, but that strikes me as another recent script which might support your hypothesis.

      I feel like none of The Imitation Game’s collaborators brought anything fresh to the material. I said something in the review about how the movie that played in my head exceeded the movie I saw on the screen. In many places I felt like I was watching a script being read rather than an actual scene being filmed.

      My instinct about the film is that everyone realized how brilliant the script was and they didn’t want to do anything to mess it up. [Truthfully, I’d have been first in line with critical barbs sharpened if they had dramatically reinterpreted the script.]

      In addition to Birdman, I’m also reminded of Amadeus. I feel like Shaffer and Forman do an admirable job of finding the cinematic elements within the world of the source play. So, I think material with inherent play-like qualities, still has a chance to be a great film

      Also, I am so biased about this project because of how great I think the script is. The sad fact is, minus that knowledge about myself, I think you are correct about the overall effect the movie has.

      The script floored me. I liked the movie, a lot, but it did not floor me.

  2. Yeah, well the interesting thing is Birdman IS cinematic, and above on the site we have Whiplash which also IS cinematic, and then we have the Imitation Game which is maybe not so cinematic, and all three movies are pretty similar in scale (small)

    Now, the obvious thing we can infer is that we have two movies from writer-directors and one from a writer and director and so it’s obvious which movie would be the least “cinematic.”

    So is there anything writers can do about that?

    I was triggered to thinking about this when I saw the Imitation Game, because of course I had read the script before and thought it was wonderful, but I sort of wasn’t surprised that the movie was only good.

    I have a belief that in the hypothetical “perfect” screenplay, the writer has done some of this work. They have painted their scenes. They have considered the imagined spaces — the flaws in those spaces. How to use those flaws? They are aware of the cinematic implications of each of their scenes. Where would people stand? What would they be doing? How do they enter, how do they leave? Is there an important insert in this scene? How can I call attention to almost none of this, but also all of it? It’s a real tightrope because you have to be judicious with it, not the lead the eye too much, or directors will hate you. You have to do this work, while having no one notice that you have done this work — basically, you need to become the first camera to record the movie.

    • I think you are exactly right about being the first camera to record the movie. That’s a great way of stating it.

      I know this is why I quit trying to write short stories and books, something about my brain couldn’t nail the compositional aspects of those mediums. They were always ideas and nice turns of phrase… without a setting.

      I started writing scripts because it forced me to consider setting. Now when I write a scene, I look at it as though I were in it. Clearly I’ve not written anything which demonstrates this well enough to get me a job doing it, but it is the number one reason why I haven’t given up on the screenplay medium. It’s the reason I think scripts [and the films which grow from them] are the most complete medium.

  3. Since it references the weakness of Imitation game, here is 3 minute film school. I really think screenwriters should think about these things. See your scenes through the beauty of geometry —

  4. That is a great breakdown of scene Geometry. And, it does seem to be what is missing from the interpretation of The Imitation Game script [aka The Imitation Game movie].

    I love the quote from Hitchcock too; I hadn’t heard that before.

    As screenwriter’s that quote should be more widely known than Goldman’s quote about nobody knowing anything :)

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