Monday, October 17, 2011

The Imitation Game

Genre: Biopic/Thriller
Premise: The story of how Alan Turing cracked the impossible “Enigma” code, which helped the Allies win World War 2.
About: If I were to gauge the buzz around all the spec screenplays this year, this one would probably be at the top of the list. In fact, I’m betting this script is going to end up as the number 1 Black List script for 2011. What makes it even more impressive is that it's from a first-time screenwriter (however, he is a novelist). Strangely, the script sold literally 24 hours after I read it, for a million bucks, to Warner Brothers. Maybe I sent some good screenplay vibes out into the universe. Or maybe it was just that Leonardo DiCaprio attached himself.
Writer: Graham Moore (based on “Alan Turing: The Enigma” By Andrew Hodges)
Details: 126 pages – undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

This script had been burning up the screenplay charts for the last few weeks. People had been talking about it as a surefire Oscar winner for 2012 or 2013. So then why didn't I read it right away? Simple. Because it was a biopic. We all know how I feel about biopics. They don't easily fit into the three act structure. They're more about following a person than they are about a story. They have that wandering mushy feel that I'm not a fan of. Up until this point, I’d probably say my favorite biopic was The Muppet Man. And if you remember my review, I even had a bunch of problems with that one.

Well, a new biopic has taken over that title. And it's The Imitation Game. Why? Because this script has rewritten the rules of biopics. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But I will say this. This script addressed the biggest problem I have with this genre. How? Read on my friends.

Imitation Game starts in 1951 with Alan Turing having been robbed. When the police come, they see all these chemicals and equations everywhere - a complete mess - along with Alan, who's evasive and somewhat embarrassed about the break-in. In fact, he tries to convince the cops that it's nothing. And although they eventually leave, they’re suspicious that Alan isn’t being entirely truthful with them.

We then cut to 1939, where Alan is being recruited to work on a top-secret project for the British, to try and break the code known as "Enigma," which is what the Germans used to encrypt all of their orders during the war. It's considered to be the single most impossible code to break in all of history, and this project is seen as a long shot at best. Even the other people working on Enigma are convinced that it's a waste of time.

But Alan is a different kind of beast. Although it's never said during the screenplay - it's evident that Alan has some form of autism. He's amazing with puzzles and numbers but has absolutely zero social graces. This makes him a huge burden to work with. And as soon as he pops into the group, he's hated or ignored by everyone.

We also jump back to a third time period – 1927 - when Alan was 15. Obviously, because he was so strange, he often got bullied and beat up. There was one kid, however, who saw beyond what the other kids saw. His name was Christopher and he was tall and striking and cool and nice, the exact kind of person you’d expect to never give Alan the time of day. But the two struck up a close friendship, which would prove to be the most important friendship of Alan's life.

Anyway, we continue to jump between these three timelines, with the bulk of the time being spent in the Enigma section. And that really is where the meat of the story resides. As one of his superiors points out to Alan, every 10 seconds, eight more people are dead because of this war. So there's a lot of pressure to figure Enigma out.

Eventually, Alan realizes that the reason they're unable to crack Enigma is because they're humans, and Enigma is more like a machine. In order to figure out a machine, he surmises, you have to come up with your own machine. So he starts building this machine, to the doubts of others, and calls it Christopher (which gives you an idea of where that 1927 storyline is heading).

In addition to being about cracking the uncrackable code, The Imitation Game is also about a man who's unable to connect with others, who only thinks in terms of logic, and must fight endlessly for even the tiniest bits of emotion and connection. It is a battle he will wage war with for the rest of his life. And it will ultimately contribute to his undoing.

All right, it's time to get into why this biopic is so much better than all the other biopics I read. Probably the most important thing I preach here on the site is the need for a strong narrative. In order for you to achieve that, you need two things. You need a character with a strong goal. And you need that character to desperately want to achieve that goal. You rarely get that in biopics. They're usually more a collection of life highlights. But The Imitation Game follows a more traditional narrative path in that it gives its character a strong goal (crack Enigma) along with a desperate desire to achieve it (all Alan cares about is cracking Enigma - it's the only thing he thinks about 24-7).

Why are these things so important? Because almost all good movies have active main characters - characters who drive the story forward by their own actions. And the best way to get that kind of character is to give him a goal and make it a goal he cares about more than anything. If you do that, your hero will always be fighting and pushing and scratching and clawing to achieve that goal. By that very definition, he'll be active.

But that's not all it does right. Whenever you write a biopic, the subject of your story has to be fascinating in some way. The best way to achieve this is to insert some sort of inner conflict inside of him that needs to be resolved. Here, Turing's flaw is his inability to connect with others. He only seems capable of connecting with numbers and equations and codes and puzzles. Try as he might, he can't connect with humans. And you feel that with every choice he makes.

In effect, he has to learn to work with others if he's going to figure this out. This is something he's unable to do - which gives every scene within the Enigma project a ton of conflict.

But I think where this script really elevates itself is when he starts building Christopher. Now I'm going to allude to spoilers here so tread carefully, but there's something ironic and sad and powerful about a man who's unable to connect with others, building a machine - the only thing he's truly able to relate with - to solve his problems, when in effect what he's really doing is rebuilding the one human being he cared about. That irony hangs over every scene in the second half of the screenplay and it's really powerful stuff.

I also loved how we didn't go down the traditional boring "daddy doesn't approve of my life choices" path that so many of these biopics rely on. I loved that they found a different relationship to affect our main character.

On the downside, a director pointed out to me that this is not a cinematic script at all. And when I thought about it, I realized that almost the entire screenplay is people talking in rooms. Indeed, it's difficult to make that cinematically exciting. However, the same thing can be said about The Social Network and The Imitation Game’s second cousin, A Beautiful Mind. Plus, we're talking about World War 2 here so I'm sure they could add some cinematic scenes if they really wanted to. For example, there's an intense scene later on where our characters have the opportunity to save a boat that's under siege by the Germans. In the script, we don't cut to that boat. But that could easily be written in.

I think my biggest problem with this script was the homosexual stuff. One of the secrets Alan keeps is that he's gay. My issue is that it doesn't play into the story at all. It just seems to be another quirky attribute of Alan’s. And because it's unnecessary, it starts to feel like Oscar bait. There's a precedent for these misunderstood mathematical genius roles to win Oscars. And if you make him a homosexual, well that just beefs up the chances.

The thing is, the one area where it really could've helped the story is where it wasn't used. I'm talking about the relationship between Alan and Christopher. It's alluded to briefly, but then that's it. I would've loved if they'd explored that relationship more, and shown more of a connection between them, because it really is heartbreaking later when Alan is building the machine. And if I would've understood that relationship and that love better, I'm sure it would've taken it over the top. But yeah, the whole "present day" stuff about him hiding his homosexuality didn't work for me. In fact, I would probably ditch all of the 1951 stuff and use that time to explore the 1927 storyline better. More Christopher please. I mean, he is the reason you’re able to read this blog right now (Alan Turing’s machine is what later spawned the computer).

That said, I really liked the screenplay. The strong goal and compelling inner conflict, coupled with the tragic backstory, really packed a punch. And the script was really well written. It’s easily one of the better scripts of the year.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I'm telling you guys, if you write a biopic, I'm begging you to come up with some sort of clear objective/goal like The Imitation Game. That way, instead of just appealing to the biopic nuts, you'll also be appealing to the masses, as you'll be crafting a script with a strong storyline.