Saturday, February 21, 2015

Stephen Hawking & Alan Turing

Okay, I recently saw The Theory of Everything, the story of Stephen Hawking, his wife, and the advent & progression of his disease but I waited to post about it. As someone who takes care of an aged parent who is losing his identity by leaps and bounds, it was hard for me to watch this, much less discuss.

Today I went to see The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing and his work in creating a machine to crack the Enigma code the Nazis used during WWII.

Both of these films depict real men in intellectual pursuits, each with a condition either physical or psychological/emotional which makes them different even from their colleagues.

These films both deserve their own recognition, so let's start with The Best of Everything.

It is the often harrowing true story of brilliant English physicist, Dr. Stephen Hawking, diagnosed as a young man with ALS, also called "Lou Gehrig's Disease." His body begins to betray him as he loses control of his muscles and limbs. We watch him go from an awkward man, thought to be clumsy, through the emotional pain and frustration of losing control by degrees.  In the beginning, he is given a prognosis of only two years to live.

He marries his sweetheart, who vows she will stay by his side.  They have children together. He becomes more and more limited in what he can physically do on his own.  Finally he is confined to a wheelchair and cannot provide any of his own care. Friction comes in the marriage when his wife continues to do it all by herself.  By this time, they have three children. The story goes on from there.

The great tragedy in this film is Dr. Hawking loses the ability to speak, but retains his amazing intelligence.  He is one of the most gifted physicists of our time.  Imagine not being able to share such knowledge, how frustrating that must be.

Most of you have probably seen Dr. Hawking interviewed or teaching.  If you have, you know his voice is computer generated - technology helped him speak again, even if the accent is American rather than his native British English.

Eddie Redmayne does a phenomenal job of portraying Dr. Hawking, twisting his body into all but impossible positions to emulate the struggles this man lives with.

Felicity Jones also does a wonderful job in the role of his wife, portraying the emotional journey Mrs. Hawking went through with sadness, fear, and exhaustion sapping her daily energy.

This film is a realistic portrayal of what caregivers of people with disabilities face.  It is a daunting prospect at best, even or perhaps especially so when it is someone the caregiver loves.

Redmayne and Jones are both nominated for Academy Awards for acting and rightly so.  The Best of Everything is also nominated for Best Picture, as it should be.  It brings to the audience the realization that the genius in the wheelchair with the mechanical voice is at heart a fully rounded human being, capable of love, laughter, and emotional pain.  Something often overlooked by the people who turn their back when confronted by the sight of a person with a disability.

The Imitation Game

This film is another British production about a brilliant Englishman, Alan Turing, arguably one of the greatest heroes of World War II.

Like Hawking, Turing is a different sort of chap, brilliant mathematician, but focused to the point of mania. He is an introverted genius with few social skills. He doesn't realize when he offends people.  He doesn't understand when those people become angry.  He simply lives too much in his mind.

During WWII, Germany known for brilliant physicists and mathematicians, develops the Enigma Machine, a clever code machine that is impossible for the enemy to decipher. (So they think...) True story, the English get hold of one of the Enigma Machines, in the film, a polish soldier stole the machine and got it to the English.  I don't know if that's historically accurate or not, but they did have one of the machines, which the Nazis did not know.

At an estate in southern England, known as Bletchley Park, the military and secret military intelligence hired people to break the Enigma code.  Trouble was, the code was only good for 24 hours, so each day at midnight the code was thrown out and a new one used.  The Brits couldn't break the code fast enough to be of use before the code changed.

Enter Alan Turing added to the mathematicians, linguists, and statisticians already working on the Enigma.  His idea was to build a "thinking machine", he called Christopher (for reasons explained in the film). During the struggle to build the machine, Turing had to learn to work well with others, instill trust in them, learn to like them and socialize with them. He is helped by Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a lovely female cryptographer who helps him solve the Enigma along with his crew.

This is a powerful story based on historic events.  They do succeed in breaking the Enigma codes as fast as the Germans change them.  Then comes the moral dilemma.  They cannot stop every attack they know is coming.  If they do, the Germans will know they have broken the Enigma code and change to something else, throwing out all the work done at Bletchley Park, along with the Allies' advantage.

When the war ends, the unit is told to break up the machine (Christopher) and burn it.  They are forced to burn all records and told never to see each other again.  Their work is to be kept secret in case they need another such unit to fight the Soviets in the future.

Turing goes back to his professorship at Cambridge, withdrawing once again. His personality, or lack of one, gets him into trouble in the 1950s.  He is ultimately arrested for "indecent behavior" because he is a homosexual, which at that time, was illegal in Great Britain. It is the beginning of his downfall.

Bravo Benedict Cumberbatch.  He does a magnificent job of portraying Alan Turing.  It is always so difficult to play a truly repressed personality with poor social skills, brilliant or otherwise and make the audience feel his pain.

Keira Knightley as Joan also does a wonderful job in the film, a young woman who in her own way is as intelligent as Turing as a female which was an anathema in those days.

Both Cumberbatch and Knightley are up for acting awards at the Oscar presentation - Him for Best Actor and her for Best Supporting Actress.

I have to tell you, this one made me cry - not as much as American Sniper, but enough that I put on my sunglasses upon leaving the theater because I hadn't stopped weeping.

Just before the ending credits on the screen, is a paragraph explaining that historians think the breaking of the Enigma code ended the war two years earlier than it would have ended.  They also estimate that 14 million lives were saved by the war ending when it did rather than continuing.

Alan Turing is considered to be the father of modern computers.  His "Christopher" did remind me of Univac, the first commercial behemoth computer which matured into our hand held devices in contemporary times.

In the early 1990s, Queen Elizabeth pardoned Turing posthumously from the charges and allowed the tale of the Bletchley Park Code Breakers to be released to the public. Overturning fifty years of silence on the amazing success of their work.

Whew. I did well this year.  I've seen four of the five Best Actor nominees for the Oscars - missing only Steve Carell in Foxcatcher.

Of the eight best picture nominees, I've seen five and may see the sixth, Boyhood, before the Oscars tomorrow.

My favorite for Best Picture? That's a tough call.  They're all so different and not a bad one in the bunch.
The same with the Best Actor nominees.  Each of these men did memorable work in their respective films.  I am hard pressed to name a favorite. Bradley Cooper surprised me in American Sniper with his performance. (As a Texan, I may be a tad bit prejudiced).  Redmayne and Cumberbatch were both phenomenal in their roles.  Michael Keaton surprised me the most in Birdman.  I wasn't expecting the depth of his performance.

Hollywood Buzz says it will likely be Keaton.  That's fine, but I'll be happy with any of them.

Check out these and other nominees.  The films are well worth your time.


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