Last week we debated the starker disparities among Oscar contenders, especially how “The Imitation Game” broke through with eight nominations, while Angelina Jolie's epic “Unbroken” scored only three — and not in the major categories. The two films, though, actually have a lot in common. Both have attracted large audiences and both offered new World War II-era figures for American moviegoers to admire: Alan Turing and Louis Zamperini. America loves heroes, and these two are inspiring. As we plunge into the season of intense Oscar speculation, we might also step back to consider the curious relationship between these cinematic heroes and the current political context.
“The Imitation Game” depicts the life of mathematician Turing, who invented a machine for decrypting the Nazis' Enigma cipher messages. It was central to the Allied victory. After the war, however, instead of being lionized by the British government for his genius, Turing was persecuted for his homosexuality — convicted of indecency, stripped of his security clearance and sentenced to “chemical castration.”
One tragic irony implicit in the film is that Turing, who decodes secrets for his government, is ultimately destroyed by his government when his own secret is decoded. He died at age 41 (deemed a likely suicide). With his work kept classified, Turing garnered no public recognition. No Nobel Prize crowned his monumental achievement: inventing digital technology.
“The Imitation Game” grants him fame posthumously. By making Turing a sympathetic hero (and casting heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch), the film inspires regret at his mistreatment while reassuring modern-day moviegoers of our social progress. We would never so mistreat a Turing today, we tell ourselves, shunting aside temporarily the pervasive homophobia still with us.
A further, unexplored irony in the film is that Turing's work actually engendered the electronic surveillance tools used today by our government to invade citizens' private lives.
“The Imitation Game” celebrates communications surveillance, making heroes of the Bletchley Park code-crackers. Because their goal — defeating the Nazis — was unassailable, we root wholeheartedly for Turing and his team giving no thought to the broader ethics of surveillance. This was war, after all; the Germans were the enemy, and enemies enjoy no right to privacy.
Today, however, we ought to consider how the film yokes heroic, wartime patriotism to the use of technology to monitor and intercept communications. Cheering the first, do we implicitly embrace the second?
Thanks to Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, we now know how vulnerable personal data is to the National Security Agency and to the United Kingdom's GCHQ (Government Communication Headquarters), whose astonishing reach includes decryption software capable of trying a trillion passwords per second. While the rationale for electronic surveillance programs like PRISM remains wartime national security, the enemy is now the far more amorphous “terror” — potentially casting suspicion on anyone.
We seem passive in the face of this tremendous loss of our privacy — too infatuated with technology to question how it erodes democracy. How many of us even noticed the NSA reports, released quietly the day before Christmas (in response to an ACLU lawsuit) documenting instances of how NSA surveillance of Americans' electronic communications has been violating U.S. privacy laws for more than a decade?
I am not suggesting that “The Imitation Game” was produced with the conscious intent to numb our fears about computer surveillance. Rather, the film testifies to the strange power of the pop-cultural unconscious to send up from its depths messages that, like dreams, act out both our worst anxieties (powerful surveillance mechanisms) and their magical resolution (they're used only for heroic purposes). Thus can cinema lull us into acceptance.
We might feel similarly lulled by “Unbroken.” Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller, the film shines a light on Zamperini, the Olympic runner turned GI who survived years of unspeakable torture in a Japanese prison during World War II.
Zamperini's astounding story should be told, but let's also note its timing. The movie opened on Christmas, just two weeks after the release of the Senate intelligence report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program (the “torture report”), which chillingly recounts America's own all-too-recent wartime barbarism.
Yet the connection between “Unbroken” and the report — that both graphically depict military torture — attracted little notice. We maintain quite a mental firewall between our entertainment and politics. Today, the report's descriptions of sadistic acts committed by our government, in defiance of the Geneva Conventions, have receded from the front pages and consequently from public consciousness. Hollywood abets our oblivion by proffering a new American hero to admire: Zamperini, a patriot from the last virtuous war we fought.
“Unbroken” inverts the problem posed by the Senate report, thereby defanging it: Through the perspective of a blameless American hero, it asks us to contemplate the evils of torture inflicted upon us, instead of by us.
Can we turn such cinematic wish-fulfillment toward a greater good? Perhaps, if we resist the siren song of World War II nostalgia and the amnesiac patriotism into which it lulls us. Then we might be able to attend to the larger implications of these Hollywood crowd-pleasers. We might use them as a way to sustain public conversations about issues like homophobia, surveillance culture, torture or war.
Critical readings of commercial movies need not diminish our enjoyment of them. Cinema remains one of the most powerful expressions of our social and political soul, so as we contemplate the various Oscar nominees, or debate the “injustices” of certain films being overlooked, we might also take time for a little soul-searching.
Rhonda Garelick is the author of "Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History" and a visiting professor of interdisciplinary studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center. @rkgar