Saturday, December 5, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "The Imitation Game" (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

The Imitation Game (2014)
Directed By: Morten Tyldum
Written By: Graham Moore, Andrew Hodges (Book)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Mathew Goode
Genre: Biography, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 114 minutes
Summary: During World War II, mathematician Alan Turing tries to crack the enigma code with help from fellow mathematicians.

The Movie

In today's modern age, it's strange that it took a biopic for people to learn about who Alan Turing is. He was a mathematician that was very influential in winning World War II for the British. He was also key in a lot of the earlier forms of computers that are now practically essentials to our daily routines. He is a pioneer who did a lot for the world, even if his work is largely ignored thanks to his private life. Turing was a homosexual, and to be so in the 1950's was more than criminal. While his work lived on, his legacy was submerged in tragedy in the years following the events of The Imitation Game. The main conflict however is that the film doesn't really focus on those events. It decides to end with WWII finished and a party around a fire as Alexandre Desplat's score plays. Any trauma that Turing faced is found in title cards before the credits roll.

There is a fair point in arguing that the film isn't meant to be a grand message about how Turing was gay, but a mathematician. The film plays cold and clinical with this approach, going so far as to only hint at his personal attractions in the guise of camaraderie to former friends. It's a film very much about the science and heroism of Turing. With a performance by Benedict Cumberbatch that is as cold and clinical as the machine he builds, the film creates a story that is so rich with honoring of the man that even his niece would claim that the film did him justice. Along with a noteworthy performance by Keira Knightley as his love interest, the story plays out in the familiar sense of a WWII thriller, but with machines and some clever narration to add some style.

It's a film that should feel more important, largely because of how important computers are nowadays. With a steady box office and constant chatter, it was a film that quickly became a crowd favorite. It was a story of triumph and proof that people still love WWII dramas. The issue is that Turing the individual was far less interesting than what he did within the story. He was a hollowed out body that carried the story to its logical conclusion, never providing a deeper sense of Turing as a person. While this again makes sense for heroism, it keeps Turing from ever being interesting as a character. And besides, Cumberbatch isn't entirely able to show the range necessary to make Turing interesting beyond the surface hero worship that this film ended up being. It's adequate, but definitely lacks a deeper sense of purpose in emotional investment.

The Campaign

Ladies and gentlemen, let's welcome back producer Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Company. He is a man known for spinning the films to try and add deeper importance to his work. Failed Oscar Campaigns has covered Silver Linings Playbook and its politicizing of mental illness. There's even been coverage of Philomena and its politicizing of religion. However, The Imitation Game feels like something far less logical than anything that Weinstein has done before. It isn't a story that's entirely based on barbaric events. It's more based on what the film is and what Weinstein wants voters to think that the film is. Alas, there's the campaign to honor Turing the individual.

It all began with a bit of history. After Alan Turing was turned into a pariah in his lifetime, he was eventually royally pardoned in 2013. Cut to 2015 when Weinstein appeared on CBS This Morning. Having been a member of the Commander of the Order of the British Empire since 2004, he felt passionate about the film. Based on a recent speech made by comedian Stephen Fry that honored Turing, Weinstein noted that 49,000 gay men and women were still persecuted and without any form of pardon. In the same interview, he claimed that he would gladly give up his status in the CBE to make it happen. He would bring awareness to the cause and hopefully get them the attention that Turing had received in the past few years.

This would all make sense, had it not been for another interview with writer Graham Moore. He claimed that 
“We’re really glad our film can be a part of that conversation…Alan Turing wasn’t a gay mathematician, he was a mathematician who happened to be gay, and we felt that was an important cultural statement.”
Moore would go even further, claiming that the film takes place during Turing's time at the Bletchley College, where he was largely asexual. The only real reference to his homosexuality comes in one vague scene where he falls for a friend, of whom he names the machine after. It's interpretive as to whether or not this was just a lazy approach to not talking about Turing's gay tendencies. However, it made a point that was clear: this was a film about a mathematician. It was not going to be about a successful gay man.

Which lead to the launch of Weinstein's campaign. How would he spin an essentially asexual story into a political agenda to right the wrongs of gay mistreatment in the 20th century? With a familiar tactic. It's the old "For Your Consideration" video:

It makes sense to create advertisements highlighting the value of its own subject. However, it was the start of something far more crass. Posters began to pop up around the same time stating to "Honor the man, honor the film." While this seems like a cheap Oscar gimmick, it makes less sense within the throes of the LGBT campaign that Weinstein planned. In fact, there's one thing particularly strange about the above "For Your Consideration" video. It's missing footage from the actual movie. There's very little that ties into the movie beyond the actors talking about Turing. The rest is a mix of archival photos and gay celebration pictures. For those thinking that this is a gag video, it isn't. This really was part of the marketing. It's sickening.

There is no issue with making a movie about Alan Turing and making it thoroughly asexual. While it makes for a film that I don't personally enjoy, it could work as a more conventional thriller. Instead, the Weinstein campaign feels largely soulless and misguided despite having its foot in a good cause. Considering that it's still less than a year away from this campaign, it continues to feel like it was just some movie marketing. Weinstein doesn't seem to have done anything revolutionary or important to the cause in the time following The Oscars ceremony. This raises the question: why? Why manipulate your film to fit an agenda that it's clearly not interested in doing, especially since the themes were explicitly not included to emphasize Turing as a normal person? It feels confusing and humiliating.

The Payoff

It was a big year for Birdman. Almost every film in the nominations received more awards than The Imitation Game. Even then, it's impressive to note that the film racked up eight nominations, including Best Picture. As the ceremony got closer, many contemplated whether or not The Imitation Game could be seen as the safe vote and would win. While it helped to get beloved British actor Cumberbatch his first Oscar nomination, it did very little else throughout awards night. There wasn't even a strong focus for gay rights present throughout the film. It was the year where most of the Best Picture nominees were lead by frustrated straight white males; most of which were biopics of famous people. In the crowd of films, The Imitation Game was merely another entry.

The one winner of the night was for Best Adapted Screenplay with Moore. His acceptance speech featured the familiar rattle. He thanked the cast, crew, and his family. As this wound down, he took a moment to tell a more personal story. It involved his attempted suicide, which he was now thankful didn't work. He was also baffled that he got to stand before more people than Turing ever did. Yet his big takeaway came in what was likely one of the best speeches of the night. He asked the outcasts out there to stay weird and keep following their dreams. He stated that he believed that in time, they would be up on that stage, passing the advice along to the next generation. 

Not to destroy the sentiment, but there's a lot of strange subtext when associated with the campaign. Moore mentioned people who were "weird." Considering that Turing was portrayed predominantly asexual, it makes sense and rings as a hopeful message. The issue is that it isn't the image that Weinstein had been painting for the months leading up to this moment. Where Sean Penn had taken time during his Best Actor acceptance speech for Milk to focus on gay rights, Moore seemed content to merely talk about outcasts. There's nothing wrong with that, but it almost feels to undermine Weinstein unintentionally. "Weird" can be seen as a cowardice way of saying "gay." In that sense, the irony of the film straight-washing Turing's career came full circle with an otherwise encouraging statement.

It is too early to determine if The Imitation Game is anything but a gimmick movie. To those who like WWII thrillers, it was likely a good film. However, it does feel like a regressive film if approached from the LGBT angle. There's not a lot really to dissect, and it does a disservice to those feeling like gays should be equally represented in media. Whatever the cause, it's still a film from the lower tier of Best Picture nominees that never stood a chance of winning. By throwing in sexual politics, it only made Weinstein look worse and more despicable as a human. It makes you wonder if he'll ever have a dignified campaign. Chances are that we won't.

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