Author and expert Professor S Barry Cooper examines the biopic about the man who cracked the Enigma machine
“I only got three hours' sleep last night, so it kind of makes one unstoppable,” offers Professor S Barry Cooper. His hectic schedule is unsurprising: given the recent release of The Imitation Game – the World War II-set thriller about the cracking of the Enigma machine, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the pioneering cryptanalyst, computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing – it's a busy time to be one of the pre-eminent experts on the man who laid the foundation for modern computing and is credited as the founder of AI. As author of Alan Turing: His Work and Impact and Professor of Mathematical Logic at the University of Leeds, Prof Cooper knows a thing or Turing. Staving off sleep for a little while longer, her gave us his thoughts on The Imitation Game and its depiction of one of the most significant Britons of the 20th century.
On watching The Imitation Game for the first time:
"For half of the film I was slightly uncomfortable, every time there was a little glitch about what actually happened, but then the methodology of the scriptwriter Graham Moore suddenly clicked with me and I got what he was doing: he was trying to make what happens in the mind dramatic. It's difficult when you know a lot about the history and science of something and then it's turned into an artistic creation. There's bound to be some adjustment of the literal elements, but I'm full of admiration for the job the filmmakers did. People from the specialist community will take issue with some changes but there's clear thinking behind them."
On what's real and what's movie magic:
"There are simplifications that you have to go with because the film's trying to reach an audience of people who don't know a lot about computer science. They don't show the development of the Colossus computer, for instance, which was as important as the Bombe designed by Turing, but there's a limit to how many encrypting machines you can have in one film. It's the same with the characters: many important figures are not in the film, but there were almost 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park by the end of the war. If you're going to serve the overarching truth of what happened you have make difficult decisions and sacrifice some detail. The objective of The Imitation Game was to do the right thing by Turing and show who he was as a person and give some idea of the importance of his work, if not the specifics – to demonstrate how creatively and ingeniously he related to the science."
On The Imitation Game's depiction of Alan Turing:
"If you go back to the 1940s an English mathematician would have been quite private about what he was thinking. Turing kept no diaries. What the film has done is drawn out and dramatised many aspects of his psychology, like his seeming intellectual arrogance. Turing had an Asperger-ish side, and early in the film his sharpness is a result of being on a learning curve of social expertise – he was good at the maths but not at interacting with people. There's a wonderful scene where Keira Knightley's character tells Turing that if people don't like him he's not going to get the support he needs for the decoding project, and the next day he's handing out apples to everybody. I know many Asperger's people and they have a naivety sometimes which is actually rather attractive. One does come across people that he really ran up the wrong way back then, but he was a very sweet guy, Turing – definitely odd and eccentric, but a good man. Benedict Cumberbatch was an excellent choice."
On the importance of Turing's work to the Allied campaign:
"Cracking the Enigma machine was crucial because the war effort wouldn't have endured if the supply lines across the Atlantic had continued to be broken by the German submarines. We were losing something like 80% of our ships, which couldn't have been maintained – we might have lost the war before America joined. The actual work that Turing and his group of colleagues did on the sharp end of the decrypting saved many thousands of lives. Most people say it shortened the war by two to four years."
On the belated recognition for Turing's contributions:
"I started out at time when I always had to explain who Alan Turing was and what he'd done, and now the level of familiarity has risen enormously. First he actually got the royal pardon last year that people said was impossible – there was no precedent for it – and now there's The Imitation Game and a lot of very good books as well. None of this was predictable at all, and it's tremendously satisfying."
The Imitation Game is out in cinemas now; Alan Turing: His Work and Impact is available here