Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Breaking the Code": 1996 BBC biography of Turing, like a stage play, is a riveting account of his own unraveling

I did watch “Breaking the Code: Biography of Alan Turing” (1996) on YouTube, a 90-Minute film from the BBC, PBS and Anchor Bay, directed by Hebert Wise, based on the book by Andrew Hodges and play by Hugh Whitemore.

The film does unfold like a play, and is shot in many long scenes, out of chronological sequence but placed in an order that shows the tragedy of the way Turing’s life ended after his contributions to breaking the Nazi code during World War II (posting Oct. 17, yesterday).  It was interesting to me that a film with such long takes on static sets could be successful, but some of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films were shot that way. The film has the look and feel of a PBS "Masterpiece Theater" episode.  I think it would be a good older (15 years) film to show to high school social studies classes, if the class is mature enough (11th grade and up).  

The adult Turing is played by Derek Jacobi.  During the unfortunate unraveling in the early 1950s, he looks about his age.  He looks older than he should in the WWII flashback at Bletchley Park
The film does a good job of setting up his personality:  his lack of “social graces”, his sincerity and direct honesty.  A lady friend, who actually wants to chase him, says it would be better sometimes to tell a little lie.  He is counseled about his social “openness” during WWII, being told that his telling people about his lifestyle could upset them, contradicting everything they have been taught and believed.  Turing is made to look almost arrogant himself because of his intellectual superiority to “ordinary fok” (or, as in one angry email to me, the “cretins of the world”).

Turing could be a little reckless at home when inviting young men over in the early 50s, and a little pushy in ways that attracted notice in the homophobic 50s (touching men’s knees, for example; there is some intimacy in one scene).  It’s not quite clear why he takes the initiative to discuss a possible burglary with police, but then he shows his naiveté when admitting homosexual acts at home to a detective visiting his house in 1952.  He cannot understand why the government cares about acts committed with other consenting adults in private.  That whole sequence reminds me of my own unraveling, when I was expelled from William and Mary for “admitting” to the Dean of Men that I was gay in the fall of 1961.  Did Turing need to “tell”?  No, he wanted to make a point.

Later, Turing is telling another friend in a restaurant that (unlike Oscar Wilde) he stayed out of prison by agreeing to chemical castration and taking female sex hormones.  He mentions that he is growing female breasts.  This, to a modern person, sounds like the most shocking and cruel of treatments, even more so than “reparative therapy”.   I remember, as a teen, that the idea of being forcibly shaved could be the most humiliating possible hazing experiences, to be (as I thought then) made to “feel feminine”.  Freshmen at William and Mary were supposed to attend “tribunals” in a dorm basement the last Friday of September, where “they shaved the boys’ legs”.  I skipped out on that, which added to the suspicion that would lead to my own unraveling.  That’s how it was. Physical shame could become life-ending. 
In a scene near the end, Turing, despite having been neutered, is talking to a civilian security officer “John Smith” about how even US allies of the British government in the Cold War (against the Soviets) are worried about Turing’s access to secrets when he has practiced homosexuality.  This plays right into the circular chestnut of the past, where homosexuality was seen as a security risk. Turing would finally end his own life by eating an apple that he laced with cyanide; that part gets a bit disturbing at one shot. 

But there is a parallel scene in 1940 when he is interviewed for Bletchley, where he is told that working as a mathematician will not excuse him from “moral responsibility” for participating in war, after Turing says he would rather work math than fight. That sounds familiar to me, given my own experience with the Vietnam era draft, deferments, and sheltered MOS (one of which was “mathematician”, “01E20”) for those with graduate degrees.

An early scene, in Turing’s early teen years, where he treasures a male friend, shows Turing’s initial mathematical interests and his tendency to stammer.

Turing did make a fascinating link between Goedel’s “incompleteness” theorem, and the way electric circuits could be designed to break code.  Other scientists (William Tutte and Tommy Flowers) would take his ideas further against more advanced Nazi machines. In other scenes, Turing talks about fractals and Fibonacci sequences in nature, and says that "numbers" are his friends, because numbers are dependable.  I had a clinical psychologist friend in Dallas in the 1980s  who used to say that.  

It’s fascinating to watch a film that shows the circular attitudes that society had about homosexuality a couple generations ago.  One could imagine a film about Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, who was fired from a government job as an astronomer in 1957when the fibbies (or goons, maybe) found out he was gay. Look how far he came back from that.

There is a trailer for the new “Codebreaker” film, and I’ll try to buy or rent a DVD copy and review as soon as available (or has a regular commercial run).  The site for that film is this

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of computer at Bletchley Park. 

Other picture: Strong Hall, Department of Mathematics (in the 1960s at least), University of Kansas, Lawrence (where I got my MA). 

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