If you've never heard of Alan Turing, the British mathmatician and genius who helped bring an end to World War II by cracking German military codes, you're not alone.
An unsung hero of almost mythical proportions, Turing only recently started to attract the international recognition he never received in life, thanks in part to a new film opening Friday called The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum, the film is based on Andrew Hodges' 1983 book, "Alan Turing: The Enigma," the title of which refers to both Turing's mysterious personality as well as the German military's Enigma machine, which the Nazis used to send encrypted messages during the war.
Part biopic, part historical drama, The Imitation Game portrays Turing as a gifted innovator and war hero who was considered by many to be an outcast, failure, or both. A socially awkward introvert and closeted homosexual, Turing preferred crossword puzzles to the company of others and seemed almost incapable of getting along with colleagues. One of the film's recurring lines, which underscores the central theme of the movie, is: "Sometimes it's the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."
After being hired by British Intelligence agency MI6 and joining a team tasked with decrypting Enigma's codes, Turing quickly determines that the group's efforts to do so are futile.
"What if only a machine could defeat another machine?" he says.
Turing envisions a new machine he says will be able to break every German code instantly, but will require additional funding from the British government in order to be built. He is put in charge of the group of code-breakers and is even allowed to secretly hire a young mathematician named Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), whose status as a woman precludes her from openly working on the top secret mission.
For several months, Turing's electricity-powered mechanical device fails to break Enigma's codes, forcing the commander of the Government Code and Cypher School to fire Turing and pull the plug on his machine. A second chance, however, leads Turing and his colleagues to a breakthrough that helps end the war and change the course of history.
Part of what makes The Imitation Game compelling is seeing how Turing's machine--now known as the world's first computer--was met with such resistance and skepticism upon its creation. It's a classic reaction entrepreneurs know well: visionaries often face significant opposition before receiving true acceptance as innovators.
The film also packs a powerful emotional punch due to the tragic details of Turing's life, from the loss of his only friend as a child--after whom he named his machine--to his eventual prosecution for being a homosexual.
Though Turing laments toward the end of his life that he wasn't "normal," his closest companion, Clarke, assures him that being abnormal is what led him to discover an entire field of scientific inquiry.
"Normal?" she says. "The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren't."