The Imitation Game is a beautifully executed script that goes in one door – cracking the Nazi code – and comes out another – a man tragically persecuted because he is gay. For anyone writing a Memoir-True Story, this script is filled with useful techniques.
The Memoir-True Story, which includes Biography (see the Memoir-True Story Class), has become the hot genre in worldwide cinema in the last few years. Gaining Oscar attention this year along with Imitation Game is the story of physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane, The Theory of Everything. Last year’s Oscar nominees and winners included 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyer’s Club and Captain Phillips.
The rap on Memoir-True Story is that while it’s a form anyone can write, it’s extremely difficult to write well. The main reason is that you are chained, at least to some degree, to the actual events, which often lack natural dramatic build. That’s why almost all good Memoirs, or in this case Biopic, use at least one other genre to heighten the plot and give the film strong narrative drive.
Imitation Game uses the Detective story, a form with one of the strongest spines in all of story. Writers often get the desire line of the Detective story wrong. They think it’s about finding out who killed John Doe. Yes, in Detective, the murderer is usually the subject of the hunt. But the real desire line in a Detective story is to find the truth. That’s why the Detective form is almost always used to shape stories about scientists and journalists.
Imitation Game, the story of mathematician Alan Turing, uses not one but three investigations to drive the plot:
1. What is post-war Turing doing that caused him to be attacked in his home?
2. How does Turing figure out a machine that can crack the secret Nazi code in World War II?
3. Who was Christopher in Turing’s youth?
This immediately highlights a story challenge found in any Advanced Story (see Advanced Class): how do you track three investigations, at three different points in time, without losing forward narrative drive?
To do these three investigations simultaneously, writer Graham Moore, from Andrew Hodges book, uses the storyteller structure. Conventional wisdom has sometimes looked down on the storyteller structure as “un-cinematic.” This is total nonsense. The storyteller structure is one of greatest cinematic techniques of all time, and is especially useful in Memoir-True Story.
Moore uses storyteller structure in the classic way. He begins at the end of a dramatic event: in the early 1950’s the police investigate a break-in where Turing has been injured. But it is unclear what really happened. This triggers the hero to tell his own story in first person. We jump back, to 1938, to track Turing’s hiring, leadership and eventual success in cracking the Nazi code.
By using the classic framing device of the storyteller structure, Moore gives the audience a mysterious and dramatic opening that will allow him three different investigations into who Turing really was while maintaining forward narrative drive.
There are several benefits to tracking these three investigations. First, it allows the writer to cut out all the dead time which, even in a life as dramatic as Turing’s, is considerable. Second, it gives the script tremendous story density. And third, it highlights that this is a man who is always looking for the truth, and that the truth is always slippery.
Of course the main line in this triple investigation is Turing’s effort to crack the code. Because this effort covers the relatively short time period of World War II (compared to the man’s entire life), Moore can pack in several dramatic beats, while the storyteller structure allows him to cut the necessary but undramatic parts of the search.
Perhaps the best of these dramatic beats concerns the lone woman on the team, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. With this role and her wonderful turn in Begin Again, Knightley has shown this year that she is much more than one of the world’s great beauties. Perhaps Moore’s best scene is when Joan shows the brilliance that gets her hired, and even more importantly, impresses Turing. Knightley’s comic touch is perfect in the scene, and she is equally touching in her emotional and dramatic scenes later on.
As always with a Detective story, much of the fun comes from the quality of the revelations. Moore has plenty here, which is all the more unique given that this is based on a true story. Finding a true story with enough plot is rare, and when rich plot is combined with the deep emotional power of True Story, the effect is tremendous.
The film is not without its conventional elements that sometimes call attention to themselves. Imitation Game is structured in some ways like a suicide mission story, which is a sub-genre of war story. In that form, some disparate individuals are brought together to form a team, and they are sent on a mission so dangerous that it is clear no one will come out alive. And yet the fate of the war depends on it, so it must be done.
Here some disparate individuals are brought together to form a team that will defeat the enemy’s mind. More than once someone says that Turing’s machine won World War II. Yes, it was big deal, it saved thousands of lives and it shortened the war. But won the war? Tell that to the Soviet Union, which lost from 22-28 million people fighting the bulk of the German forces on the Eastern Front.
Also a bit heavy-handed is Moore’s use of the tag line. The tag line is a line of dialogue repeated many times over the course of the film, so it becomes a signature line of the story, often carrying the basic theme. The trick to the tag line is to keep it subtle when it is first introduced, so it can exert its power slowly over the audience.
Not here. The line is: “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of that do the things that no one can imagine.” But it’s so obviously poetic and witty from the beginning that it is clearly written. It flashes itself to the audience: “Look at me, I’m a tag line. Isn’t this a brilliant thing to say?”
Of all the techniques Moore does well – and there are many – perhaps his best is the basic storytelling twist I mentioned at the top, where he goes in one door and comes out another. A lesser writer would have focused the main story on the social tragedy of Turing’s persecution as a gay man. It would have announced itself as a social drama, much of the audience would have immediately put up a defensive shield, and the tragedy would have been limited to preaching to the choir.
Instead Moore told the story of a great puzzle solver and patriot, whose contributions changed history. The audience got to see the power of a genius. So when, at the end of the film’s framing puzzle, the story flips around to show this man’s atrocious treatment by the very people he saved, the tragedy is overwhelming.
Justice doesn’t happen because the general public sees that something is unfair. It happens when the general public realizes what they are losing when they allow people of real talent to be destroyed.
Writer Graham Moore knew this fundamental truth of human nature. And he was able to construct a story structure that would bring it home big time. Well done.