Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Codebreaker": A strong biography of Alan Turing, and the tragedy of his end

The British Channel 4 documentary “Codebreaker” (directed by Claire Beavan and Nic Stacey), a biography of Alan Turing, has been expanded to feature length and is available on DVD from Transit Media.  I see that I mentioned this DVD when reviewing a related short film here on Oct. 17, 2012.  It is a bit pricey and not yet available from Amazon; the company told me that selling it exclusively for a while makes it easier to earn back money for investors.  In time, I expect to see it on Amazon and Netflix (where it can be “saved”). 

The format of the film is that of “docudrama”.  Much of the screenplay shows Alan Turing, nattily dressed and handsome (played by Ed Stoppard) doing talk therapy with psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum (Henry Goodman).  Alan challenges Greenbaum to face the idea that Greenbaum himself was a German Jew who escaped the Nazis, the enemy whom Turing’s efforts were so singularly important in defeating. The film has brief interviews with other people including Alan’s nephew, Dermot and Steve Wozniak from Apple.

Alan tells his story in the sessions with Greenbaum, as Paul McGann supplements with a detailed documentary narrative.  The film balances an explanation of Turing’s innovations in computing (he originally saw a computer as a person) and presents many of his published papers, along with illustrations of how his machines worked.  Gradually, the narrative shifts to the horrific tragedy of how his life ended.

Turing explains his platonic love affair with a boyhood classmate, Christopher Morcom (his real-life nephew plays the part in the film).  He explains how feeling in love changed his perspective, as if all of life had been leading up to a relationship. But Christopher died of tuberculosis, leaving him alone.  He describes his capacity to love as limited to the area of upward affiliation.

While working at Bletchley Park, he had a platonic relationship with a female mathematician, to whom he proposed marriage; but told her that he was homosexual and would not be likely to want to be intimate.  The film repeatedly says he was totally honest and naïve about the social inconsistencies in his own society, which eventually would reflect some of the values it had gone to war over.
Turing tells the story of how a household trick led to a minor burglary of his home, with the stealing of a family watch and chain.  He was naïve about admitting even any physical intimacy in the privacy of his own home with adult men to police.  In 1952, “gross indecency” even in private was very much against the law in Britain (as in most of the US) and would sometimes be prosecuted.  He was arrested, and forced to undergo chemical castration with shiboestrol, a form of estrogen, as an alternative to prison.  The drug causes loss of libido and for the body to become feminized, with growth of breasts and loss of the beard and of other body hair.  The treatment was said to be reversible, although that seems like a dubious claim. I used, as a boy, to think of potentially shaving a male body as a way to inflict shame (a reason to “feel feminine”), as it was sometimes done in college hazing ceremonies (I wrote about the practice at William and Mary in 1961 – I skipped out on these “Tribunals”).   Turing would also find that his house was being watched.  This was the beginning of the Cold War and, in the US, McCarthyism, where homosexuals were seen, by some curious circular reasoning, a security threat.

It's important to note that Turing is always shown as male, lean, and attractive (particularly in one underwear scene) as an adult. The film does not show how he would have looked after chemical castration.  This is in line with treating the psychiatric session as like a stage play.  The film does have many flashbacks with live footage in black and white apparently from the 1930s. 

The narration describes the suicide by cyanide, and his being found by a housekeeper, just before the closing epilogue. How much more quickly would computers have advanced in the 1950s had Turing lived?  Again, the world was a more evil place, even at home, than he understood. The British government formally apologized to his family in 2009.

For all his logical brilliance and honesty and contributions, Turing wound up being punished, made into a shameful example, essentially for turning away from offering the world any of himself in "normal" family intimacy. 
The site for the film is here.  The production companies include Story Center and Furnace.

Another important film to mention here is “Enigma” by Michael Apted (Manhattan Pictures).   

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