An imitation of a drama

It’s a cheap shot, that headline. And I doubt it’s an original one. But in my almost humble opinion, The Imitation Game is a worthy film but an unworthy winner of the 87th Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

I have to confess that I haven’t yet seen or read American Sniper or Inherent Vice (though I plan to as soon as I can fit them in). So I can’t definitively say what should have won. But I did get the opportunity to see The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash at TIFF 2014, where The Imitation Game won the Audience Award for Best Film. I was surprised then, and I’m surprised now. The Imitation Game is a lesser story than¬†Theory of Everything and Whiplash, which both would have been worthier winners – and which got much bigger audience reactions in the screenings I saw.

On one level, it’s extraordinary The Imitation Game works as well as it does, seeing as it so clearly lacks tension. Without tension, there can be no effective drama. Without drama, there’s very little to enjoy.

How can I possibly say that a film about the man who made the single greatest contribution to defeating the most heinous dictator the world had seen lacks in tension? Well, because that’s how I felt – while watching The Imitation Game my mind wandered through “Great performances, looks pretty, that’s a mildly funny line, what shall I have for dinner…”

Films keep our attention through making us ask “What’s going to happen?” If we attempt to find the dramatic question of The Imitation Game, we find some central arcs (in chronological order):

  • Will young Alan reveal his young love (to the boy we eventually learn is named Christopher)?
  • Will Alan crack the Enigma Code?
  • Will Alan confess his homosexuality to Joan, his fiance?

Unfortunately, the structure of the story saps all drama from the first two arcs.¬† Alan is robbed of the chance to confess his love for Christopher by Christopher’s fatal illness – there’s no tension in Christopher’s death, just a deflation of drama. And we all know the Nazis lose, so anyone unfamiliar with Turing’s tale isn’t going to get to their edge of their seat because of Hitler. So we’re left with Alan’s repressed sexuality, and it’s here that the script squibs its shot at greatness.

While Alan’s concealment of his homosexuality does promise some much-needed drama, it fails to meet expectations. When Joan finds out that Alan’s gay, she doesn’t really care. Even more disappointingly, Alan’s homosexuality doesn’t threaten his cryptography until he is threatened by the Russian double agent – and then that threat almost immediately dissipates.

Drama basically relies on a character actively pursuing a goal, against opposition, with something important at stake. Alan is an almost entirely passive player in the plot arcs about Christopher and his homosexuality. Sure, he’s active in attempting to crack the Enigma Code, but he doesn’t really grapple with a human antagonist who’s trying to stop him – his co-workers are easily won over and his sceptical overseer mostly sneers from a distance. So what’s left? The Imitation Game is less a drama and more a fated tragedy, where the “How” some limited interest, and the “Why” is concealed until a final reveal.

Even if you really, really loved The Imitation Game, are you thinking of it now and remembering how it locked you in your seat or moved you to tears? Did you cringe in surprise or empathetic pain? Did you feel a deep sadness, or wellspring of hope?

I doubt it. But I walked out of a packed Australian screening of Whiplash and overheard the stranger behind me say “That’s the tensest film I’ve seen since Jaws.”

Not bad for a film about musicians.

I’d be shocked if American Sniper and Inherent Vice are better scripts than Whiplash. Of course, to compare the nominees to Whiplash is essentially unfair as Whiplash should never have been in the Adapted Screenplay category. But where The Imitation Game fails to provide real conflict (someone wants something badly, somebody else is stopping them get it, and something big is at stake), the Whiplash script delivers near-perfectly timed beats of jaw-dropping tension. Sure Whiplash sags a little before the finale, and some people apparently find it unrealistic (they’d be shocked to discover how extreme these settings can get), but Whiplash is a fantastic demonstration of a story advanced by scenes filled with drama. It’s also interesting to read how writer/director Andrew Chazelle was determined to make his film as taut as possible (and not just because he only had a 19 – yes, 19 – day shoot). At a Q&A at TIFF, he mentioned how he shot and cut a load of scenes where Fletcher’s home life and backstory were explored. If you read the script, you’ll note the difference, and boy, Chazelle was right to leave them on the cutting room floor. Maybe those cuts are why Whiplash didn’t win Best Screenplay. I’m sure the Weinstein marketing juggernaut had nothing to do with it.

Of course, The Imitation Game was one of two prestige British projects in the Adapted Screenplay category. The Theory of Everything is another beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, slightly pedestrian true story. But while The Theory of Everything also loses focus from its main source of tension – the marriage between Stephen and Jane – at least it gets back on track with a beautifully measured scene where Stephen and Jane confront the end of their love (though if you hit this link you may note that the writer’s light touch didn’t translate to the big print).

That moment of simple, emotional truth – “I have loved you” – contrasts starkly with The Imitation Game’s big reveal of “Christopher”, which is undoubtedly touching but comes far too late to generate any emotion beyond pity. The fact that Turing’s love was stolen from him by tuberculosis before he got to profess his affections – and just as importantly, the fact he never got over it – leaves Alan a victim of the fates, stuck in his past, unwilling to move on towards anything in the present. Alan’s cryptography is a game that echoes his past, and if our protagonist doesn’t truly care about their present, then neither will we.

At the end of The Imitation Game we understand Turing’s moment of crisis – the urge to confess a dangerous love – has happened long ago, and he’s never gotten over it. Turing is a Gatsby without any chance of redemption, attempting through his Christopher machine to rebuild the green light at the end of his dock. That’s beautiful, sure. It’s poignant. It’s touching. But it’s not very dramatic.