Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ignoring when real life gives you a better ending: THE IMITATION GAME

I saw THE IMITATION GAME and AMERICAN SNIPER last week. As the two of them have had a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding them I went into both films with high hopes. As it turned out, the Top 20 films of 2014 posts that I wrote a couple weeks ago are in no need of being revised.

Both films are "based on a true story," and what was interesting to me was that both films shared a common infuriating flaw: the protagonist's death was relegated to a footnote. My jaw dropped when THE IMITATION GAME tossed off Alan Turing's suicide as a text caption over a final celebratory moment. Later, I was flat out infuriated at the way AMERICAN SNIPER threw in a description of Chris Kyle's murder with all the grace of a handwritten note explaining "Note: Poochie died on his way back to his home planet."

I am not one of those people who thinks a "based on a true story" film needs to be a total biopic of its subject from birth to death. Hell, I prefer it when it's not. When I was a reader, I saw so many bad biopic scripts that were just trying to cram in EVERYTHING about their subject. You can usually get a far more effective movie if you hone in on one particular aspect of a character's life and explore that. A good example of this done right? SELMA.

The issue with the two movies I'm discussing today is that their subject's deaths inform so much about their lives and are directly relevant to the stories that are told in the narrative. Alan Turing built a computer that broke Nazi codes in World War II and in doing so, likely shortened the war by two years and saved tens of thousands of lives. This man was a hero as surely as anyone who fought in World War II.

And what happened to him later in life? Well, his work was classified, so there was no public recognition of what he did. Even worse than the lack of glory was the fact that he was later prosecuted for being a homosexual, because in 1952, it was a crime to be gay in the United Kingdom. Offered a choice of going to jail or chemical castration, he took the castration.  (Presumably the irony of punishing homosexual acts by sending one to jail would not set in until years later when the HBO series OZ reached the UK's shores.)

In the film, we're not shown a trial. There's no big dramatic moment when we see the state pronounce sentence on a man who saved their asses in World War II. We're given a framing story that would have set all this up, but we learn about the conviction and the castration in one scene between Turing and his ex-beard. It dulls the impact of the injustice somewhat and then even more offensively, his suicide gets NO on-screen depiction.

Yeah, he kills himself - almost certainly because of that pain of what the state put him through and somehow the movie glides right past that. I'm not just angry as someone fascinated by Turing, I'm angry as a writer. How the hell do you leave that dramatic moment on the table?

Despite that, THE IMITATION GAME is a serviceable movie. It's well-acted and competently directed. It's not standout and is the kind of film that in a few years you might strain to remember, but it does more right than it does wrong.

AMERICAN SNIPER on the other hand.....

You know what? Let's deal with that tomorrow.


  1. Hey Buddy,

    I haven't seen IG yet but I plan on it. Just out of curiosity, I did a little online searching on Turing recently, and there's some question of whether it was an intentional suicide or simply an accidental death. The actual method of death wasn't typical for a suicide (no gun, no hanging, no slit wrists) and he showed no signs of planning to ...check out. In fact, it almost makes more sense that it was accidental because of the timing and method. If he was going to cave to shame over the arrest, subsequent charges, etc he would have done it earlier and not when his life was getting back on track. In fact, he sounds a lot like most arrogant nerds, he was bothered by being outted publicly but since most ppl in his circle already knew, it was no big deal once the public scandal died down. Given that controversy, I can see why the filmmakers would choose not to show his death.

  2. Have you seen either or both of these articles? Vulture interviewed writer Graham Moore specifically about the ending and the suicide scene and THR's broader article covers Morten Tyldum deciding to cut it.


    1. Yeah, my view on it is that his death is essential to include. They wrote a scene that didn't work, but all that means is that they need to come up with a better scene. Consider to oft-given advice that "if there's a problem in the third act, it's really in the first two acts."

      In other words, making the death work might have involved rewriting more than just death scene itself. Now, there might be reasons that didn't happen - time, budget, etc. - but reasons are the same as excuses. It's good to know they tried, but I think that it was a lot more important that they make it work.

  3. I have seen neither movie, but my guess is that some exec wanted the movies to end on a "high note" and not totally depress the audience. I know a lot of execs are not a fan of the "non-happy ending". That's just my guess not seeing the movies to see what their actual endings were and if they were indeed "happy endings".