This article contains minor spoilers for the plots of The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, The Social Network, and A Beautiful Mind. Also containing these spoilers: history.
Tonight, two remarkably similar films compete to be crowned as the best film of 2014. Both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything cover a young, middle class, white, British, Cambridge-educated mathematician as they make groundbreaking claims and discoveries while trying to overcome an obstacle put in their path.
A few weeks ago Graham Moore, the Oscar-nominated (update: Oscar-winning, congratulations to Mr. Moore!) screenwriter for The Imitation Game, wrote a rather excellent article on Medium about the difficulty of portraying brilliant characters fairly. In his article, Mr. Moore talks about the historical importance of Alan Turing’s accomplishments and the stereotypical lense through which genius often gets portrayed. It surprised me when reading his article that until I reached the part about how he had written the film in question, I actually assumed it was a criticism of the film’s treatment of Alan Turing.
I enjoyed The Imitation Game. I thought it was a well written film in many parts and a lot of fun to watch. However, it unsurprisingly doesn’t quite mesh with the historical truth. Though the film depicts Turing as an insufferable genius who doesn’t get along well with his coworkers or commanding officer, Alastair Denniston as a shrewd commander with little imagination, and his colleagues as brilliant but lacking inspiration, historical records suggest that Turing actually got along fine with his colleagues and that Denniston and Hugh Alexander both supported the idea of building machines to solve the Enigma ciphers.
The “genius-as-asshole” stereotype has become the modern day equivalent of the “genius-as-madman” stereotype put forth by films like A Beautiful Mind. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is shown as an asshole with little regard for his closest friends and an obsession over a girl he dated once; again, reality doesn’t actually mirror this, but it makes for a good story.
Biopics are always going to compact and contort history to make it into a compelling 90-minute tale. I don’t actually have a problem with this in and of itself, and like I said, I enjoyed most of these films (I haven’t seen The Theory of Everything and have no interest in seeing it).
However, there is something that concerns me much more deeply.
By always putting social graces and intellectual prowess at odds with each other, filmmakers explicitly suggest that you can only have one and implicitly drive young students away from science and mathematics.
That’s a pretty bold claim, but when you’re young social standing is critical. STEM topics are often avoided by kids because they’re “uncool,” and when you combine this with the devastating implication that kids have to choose between science and art, we’re actually sending messages that could completely collapse our ability to produce young scientists and artists.
When I was in grade school, I remember that one of our teachers had us take a “for fun” test to tell us if we were left or right brained. Nevermind the fact that this concept was discredited long ago, its popularity continues to persist. The problem with this is that it implies you have to choose between science and art, between logic and emotion, and between being sociable and being brilliant.
Science and art don’t stand in opposition. They are instead completely intertwined. Scientific discovery is creative expression, and “traditional” arts are advanced by the same type of “what if”-based creative thinking that drives scientific disciplines. Some forms of art like architecture and video games rely totally on a merging of science within the art, and all forms of art rely on the science of a medium (you cannot paint in watercolor without watercolors, or make films without film). Einstein wrote that “science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form…the greatest scientists are always artists as well.” Separating science from art is impossible.
The problem that these films face isn’t that real life is less interesting than the stories we tell from it, but that familiar stories are easier to tell. Alan Turing’s life isn’t interesting because he was socially disregarded, introverted, or even homosexual in a (shockingly recent) time where that was a criminal offense. Alan Turing’s life was interesting because of the ideas and discoveries he contributed to the world. The same goes for Stephen Hawking, John Nash, and Mark Zuckerberg.
In all four of these films, we get a genius whose fascinating and essential real-life contributions are glossed over to tell an interpersonal story. Filmgoers are intimately familiar with concepts like romance and rivalry and much less so with concepts like Turing machines and artificial intelligence. It is easier for a filmmaker to fall back on the familiar. Admitting that Alan Turing didn’t have much of a romance and got along alright with his coworkers would have forced the film to focus on the actual science.
I don’t believe that Mr. Moore doesn’t understand it himself. The concepts presented, while presented briefly, are presented well. Adding in brief technical explanations in layman’s terms as a layer of verisimilitude has become common in all of these types of films: in The Social Network it’s taken straight from Zuckerberg’s blog posts as he builds Facemash and in A Beautiful Mind it’s a parable-like explanation of game theory that actually gets quite a bit wrong.
I also don’t believe that Mr. Moore doesn’t want to explore it, based on his Medium article. I’ve chosen The Imitation Game as a prime example in part because of his article. When reading it, I got the feeling Mr. Moore really did want the audience to connect with Turing. It’s just sad that more faith isn’t put into the audience to understand. The movie even instructs the viewer to pay attention at the beginning, as if it’s about to explain a very detailed concept, but then lacks the density and rigor it sets itself up for.
I personally believe that creativity is essential to science and art, that science and art are inseparable, and that any notion that scientists even can be (nevertheless must be) taciturn machines of rationalism is devastating because it is pushing people away from exploring science and discovering the inherent artistry within it. Solving the Enigma cypher was a massive undertaking and one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century; Turing was a dominant figure in it but there were countless other brilliant men and women who not only contributed but were ultimately essential.
I wonder how many more great contributions to science and art we might have if we stopped suggesting that the two were opposites. I also wonder how many more great scientists there would be if we stopped proposing that choosing a STEM discipline requires an individual to be rational, introverted, and outcast.
I am a software engineer. I work with people as well as machines. I spend much of my time thinking about how someone will use and interact with our product and much of my time using a formal programming language to express my ideas and breathe life into them. I’m not introverted, socially outcast, or in love with a computer. I’m also not nearly as brilliant as Alan Turing and would be grateful to have one one-millionth of the impact he’s had on the world, but I am sick of the stereotype that has been cast on him and many others retroactively and without supporting evidence.
Suggesting that contributing to scientific discovery requires savantism and a social disorder tells most people that their contributions are unwelcome and science isn’t for them. It also manages to marginalize the actual dedication and creativity that every scientist and artist has had to possess.
Given that modern art is so often obsessed with the notions of humanism and abstraction, isn’t it time we recognize that the geniuses of our society are people just like any others?
I think these films get a lot of things right, but I think that continuing to criticize the art we enjoy is essential to the continued advancement of art and society as a whole.
I’m not asking for a perfect representation of the truth, or even a perfect film.
All I’m asking is that the next time we make a movie about scientific discovery, we consider the power that art has not only to entertain but also to inform and influence.