Recently, a critically lavished, Oscar-nominated film has come under fire for playing fast and loose with the facts in order to make its main character palatable to an American audience. While supporters have defended its allegiance to broader societal truths, there has been some measure of discomfort about the way that it glosses over facets of its protagonist’s real life in order to better fit the film’s message. I am referring, of course, to The Imitation Game. (If historical facts can count as spoilers, there are spoilers ahead.)
The Imitation Game has an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing, a preternatural British mathematical prodigy whose social awkwardness (even by English standards!) is attenuated by an undiagnosed but clearly portrayed autism-spectrum disorder. Cumberbatch’s Turing is also a very private man and a closeted homosexual. The real-life Turing was socially charming (if eccentric), somewhat aloof to convention, and not particularly discrete about his love affairs. An outsider in almost every way, the film’s Turing moralistically connects his homosexuality and social impairments to his mathematical work on machines imitating human thought; British society suffers because it refuses to accept those who think differently. In reality, Turing was well-liked, and his work was recognized and supported by colleagues and the “Establishment.” While the law forbade gay relationships, “public school” sentiments weren’t exactly unheard of in British society, especially in Turing’s academic circles. The film also strongly implies that, in the midst of government-mandated hormone therapy, Turing despaired and took his own life. But Turing’s treatment ended a year before his death, and, some evidence supports an experimental accident rather than a suicide.
But stories are never just about facts, and this is where things get interesting. The Imitation Game is based on a 1983 biography by Andrew Hodges, an Oxford maths professor and erstwhile gay activist. As Christian Caryl points out, the book’s timing was hardly accidental. At the same time that computers were popping up in everyday life and the incredible story of the ULTRA program was being first declassified, the fight for gay rights in the UK was just beginning to turn. In Hodges’ hands, Turing’s life is an important parable for the valuable contributions of gay men to British society and of the terrible cost paid because of Britain’s strictures against homosexuality. On one hand, it’s rather doubtful that Turing would have seen his life this way; he may even have been off-put by such political activism. But on the other hand, the meaning of a life isn’t always evident to those living it. Turing’s life is bound up in the sexual politics of the 1950s, arguably the worst period of gay persecution in modern Western history and the proximate catalyst for the modern gay rights movement. The combination of lingering Victorianism, Freudian psycho-sexual essentialism, and Cold War moral paranoia led to sharply increased prosecutions of gay men, along with increased disdain for persons rather than acts. Thus, while the film distorts some of the important circumstances of Turing’s life to turn him into a misunderstood martyr, it doesn’t necessarily do injustice to the oeuvre of 1950s Britain.
But how is it that art can tell the truth without adhering to all the actual facts of a person’s life? Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper provides an excellent comparison. Like The Imitation Game, American Sniper has been criticized for distorting the facts about its main character, making Chris Kyle more complex, humble or sympathetic than he was in real life. While some of his statements have been taken out of context, it is still beyond doubt that Chris Kyle exaggerated his (post-war) exploits, took plenty of pride in his record, and had no love for Muslims or Arabs. Many of the politicizing criticisms of the film are so specious as to not warrant a reply, but those that make an appeal to the facts are harder to dismiss. Does the film distort Chris Kyle’s legacy by whitewashing his misdeeds? Is the truth about Kyle that he was simply a racist and jingoist who enjoyed the violence he wrought?
Critics of the film have tended to ask whether the Chris Kyle it depicts can be squared with the man. But few have asked whether the Chris Kyle of television appearances and a blustery autobiography is the ‘real’ Chris Kyle. The genius of Eastwood’s film is to situate Kyle’s personality within American frontier narratives and the mental shields that suffering veterans can erect. We see Kyle change on-screen, grow more distant, harden into his black-and-white worldview with every trauma. Repetitive tours and the moral wounds of killing and witnessing death appear as the cause, and not the product, of Kyle’s supposed jingoism. By depicting the war as it was experienced by many veterans and placing Kyle’s fame in the context of an entire life, American Sniper makes the caricature of “Chris Kyle” whole again. The film seems to shed light on its source, revealing a meaning to the real-world Kyle’s life that is not immediately apparent from the facts.
I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits-all rubric for judging when artistic license goes too far. But it seems that all great biopics start from a place of deep care for their subjects and for the meaning of their lives, and make all else secondary to the revealing of that meaning. Great historical films tell the truth about their subjects by contextualizing them within their own societies and within history; the best films do so in a way that gives wholeness to the subjects themselves, revealing the meaning(s) of their lives out of the noise of historical facts.
This approach has deep roots, stretching back to the campfires of ancient man and the originary structure of human life as a narrative, which the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre ties to both virtue and the intelligibility of the world itself. For MacIntyre, stories are not incidental to the human life. They have a narrative form, because human life has a narrative form. A narrative life allows us to make sense of the role of trials, suffering, and challenge in our lives; narrative allows us to experience these as meaningful change (and even growth) without losing ourselves. The experience of angst, of no longer knowing who we are or where we’re going, is precisely the experience of losing the narrative thread. The endings of these films show this well. Both Turing and Kyle met untimely deaths —their lives lack a neat conclusion. But in the stories we tell about them, we can connect their lives to their deaths, and their deaths to something greater. Both of these films resist the modern temptation to stop where the facts end, to leave life unresolved. By drawing out meaning and finality where it was clouded before, we do more than honor or remember these lives. We make them whole again.