Three recent, highly acclaimed films—Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, and Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher—tell three wildly different true-life stories about human aspiration.
The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British mathematician whose work in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma Code during World War II saved millions of lives and laid the foundations of all computer science. Turing—according to the screenplay by Graham Moore, based on the biography by Andrew Hodges—never sought distinction, but wanted only to pursue his intellectual passions without interruption or distraction. He ended up being hounded to death by civil authorities who, as with Oscar Wilde, cared much more about what Turing did in his bedroom than in his study.
The Imitation Game takes a more panoramic view of Turing’s life and achievements than Breaking the Code, the play and TV-movie starring Sir Derek Jacobi as Turing. Tyldum begins The Imitation Game with Turing’s 1951 arrest for “indecency.” In a tour de force of parallel storytelling, Tyldum cross-cuts Turing’s legal travails with his World War II codebreaking work and his school days, during which Turing (played as a boy by Alex Lawther) met and lost his first love, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). In this manner, Tyldum builds suspense to almost unbearable levels, both in each section of the movie and cumulatively throughout. He also builds our admiration, sympathy, and finally love for Turing, so that his miserable, undeserved fate is indeed unbearable.
Of course the main focus of The Imitation Game is on Turing’s top-secret codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, headquarters for the British government’s cryptographic operations. It is obvious from the first that Turing’s genius for mathematics is matched by his genius for alienating other people. Shy and awkward, Turing is also cocksure about his intellect to a point that passes for arrogance with his boss, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and his fellow cryptographers (Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard). He thinks nothing of going over Denniston’s head to write to Winston Churchill to be named head of Operation Enigma, or of peremptorily firing several members of the Enigma team once Churchill appoints him.
Turing never gets into Denniston’s good graces, but his Enigma colleagues slowly come to respect him, as does Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), head of MI6. His greatest admirer, however, is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), whom Turing chooses for the Enigma team after she proves she can solve a complicated puzzle in under six minutes.
The almost-romance between Turing and Clarke becomes the emotional focus of The Imitation Game, and the scenes between Cumberbatch and Knightley are the most moving in the film.
The Imitation Game is many things at once: a compelling biopic, a thrilling tale of World War II, a sobering lesson about the dilemmas of wartime decision-making, and a searing indictment of how society treats misfits. (Tyldum and Moore demonstrate that Turing was mistreated all his life—bullied horribly at school, and later accused falsely by Denniston of being a Soviet spy.) Everything about the film is excellent--including all the performances, as well as the elegiacally beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat--but Cumberbatch is the source of the film’s distinctive power. Not many actors are effective at communicating deep thought, but Cumberbatch specializes precisely in that ability, his dark almond-shaped eyes burning with charismatic intelligence. Unlike his suavely antisocial Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch’s Turing is overcome with the burden of his brilliance; he is stiff and halting everywhere except at his desk, puzzling out theorems no one else can begin to understand.
The sexism shown toward Joan Clarke at Bletchley Park, by everyone except Turing, is an important subplot of The Imitation Game. In Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, the relentless sexism shown toward Margaret Keane (Amy Adams)—and how she eventually overcomes it—is pretty much the whole point.
At the beginning of Big Eyes, Margaret is driving into San Francisco with her daughter Jane (played as a child by Delaney Raye and as a teenager by Madeleine Arthur), escaping a miserable suburban marriage. Staying in North Beach at the height of the Beat era with her friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter), Margaret meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a charming real estate developer who, like Margaret, is an ardent Sunday painter.
Unlike Margaret, Walter is also an ardent promoter. Soon after their marriage, Walter is making overtures to the owner of the Hungry i (Jon Polito) to display his paintings and Margaret’s at the club. Walter’s paintings are generic Parisian street scenes; Margaret’s, though kitschy, are skillful and distinctive, consisting entirely of waiflike children with enormous, sad eyes. When Walter sells one of Margaret’s paintings one night, the buyer assumes he is the painter, and he doesn’t correct her. Margaret is upset when he confesses this to her, but soon she is pulled reluctantly into a scheme in which he markets her paintings as his own. “What does it matter?” he tells her. “You’re Keane, I’m Keane, we’re both Keane!”
However, Margaret soon finds out, emphatically, that it does matter. Walter turns the big-eyed paintings into an international sensation, becoming a hard-drinking, womanizing jet-setter while Margaret is compelled to churn out painting after painting. As Walter’s fame grows, so do his arrogance and cruelty, both of which reach flash point when Margaret makes a discovery that puts the lie to everything Walter has ever said about himself.
I am old enough to remember when the Big Eyes paintings were ubiquitous. I never thought much of them, even as a kid, but Big Eyes filled me with admiration for Margaret Keane herself. Unlike Walter, but like Alan Turing, she never sought fame; all she wanted was to do her own work, and to receive credit for it. Big Eyes is largely about the difficulty she had in achieving that. As the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski makes plain, society as constituted in the 1960s backed Walter completely, liar that he was. (When Margaret tries to tell a priest about Walter’s treachery, he admonishes her to obey her husband in all things.) The performance of Amy Adams, an actor of nuanced yet forthright charm, says it all. Retiring and tentative at first, her Margaret gains steadily in strength and self-reliance, so that she can face down Walter in their climactic courtroom showdown with confidence and equanimity.
Equanimity is not a word you can use to describe Waltz’s Walter, a born con man who is left spluttering incoherently once his gaff is blown. Some critics accused Waltz of going over the top in Big Eyes; personally, I thought he reached the top without going over, his performance reaching a delightful mid-point between Joseph Schildkraut in The Shop Around the Corner and John Cleese in Fawlty Towers.
The supporting actors equal Adams and Waltz, including Ritter, Polito, Jason Schwartzman as a disapproving gallery owner and Terence Stamp as a scornful art critic. The most extraordinary thing about Big Eyes, however, is the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel—rich, varied, and recalling the glory days of Technicolor. The fantasy scene toward the middle of the movie—in which Margaret imagines everyone she sees has the Big Eyes from her paintings—is a particular knockout.
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher recounts yet another true story—one far stranger than even Big Eyes, and far bleaker than even The Imitation Game. At the center of Foxcatcher is John DuPont (Steve Carell), a figure sadly emblematic of our times. DuPont, a man without distinction except for his vast wealth and illustrious family name, thinks he can buy greatness. When he discovers he can’t, he kills it.
Although DuPont is the catalyst of the screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, the central character is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who won a wrestling gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics, as did his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). The first scene shows Mark in what looks like a wrestling match to the death, with what turns out to be a dummy. That scene is a pointed metaphor for the story to come.
The story begins a few years after the 1984 Olympics. Dave has become a much-respected wrestling coach, but Mark is at loose ends, living mainly on the $20-a-pop speaking engagements Dave throws his way. However, Mark’s prospects suddenly improve when John DuPont summons him to Foxcatcher, his palatial estate in Pennsylvania. Mark is forced to watch a documentary about the greatness of the DuPonts before being ushered in to John’s study. Spouting patriotic slogans, John tells Mark he wants to finance the training of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and sees Mark leading that training at Foxcatcher.
The inarticulate, puppylike Mark becomes John’s loyal liegeman from that moment. He moves to a guest house at Foxcatcher and helps John set up a training center. Mark—who was essentially raised by Dave after their parents died—loves the attention John showers on him, and also loves traveling in John’s private helicopter. He passes no judgment on some of John’s stranger obsessions—such as tanks and semi-automatic weapons—and he accepts cocaine, albeit hesitantly, when John offers it to him.
Mark comes to see John as a father figure, so it comes as the shock of his life when John makes it brutally clear that he courted Mark only as a way to get to Dave. Turning his back on Mark, John then makes a financial offer too large for the reluctant Dave to refuse.
Dave, a happy and well-adjusted sort, wants only to fulfill his coaching duties and help Mark. But Mark, resentful of Dave and his high standing with John, slides down a slippery slope of despondency, drugs and binge-eating. Dave, for his part, resists John’s attempts to co-opt him. Forced to say, “John DuPont is a mentor to me,” in a promotional video, he allows his lack of enthusiasm to show.
Foxcatcher has been described as an indictment of the American dream and a portrayal of the pernicious effects of wealth. It is certainly those things, but what you will remember is the sad triangle formed by John, Mark, and Dave—the last of whom never wanted it in the first place. The milieu of Foxcatcher is nearly all male; the only noticeable women characters are played by Sienna Miller, as Dave’s supportive wife, and Vanessa Redgrave, as John’s disapproving mother. (One of the most striking scenes in Foxcatcher is when John, after his mother’s death, releases all of her prize thoroughbred horses.)
John’s homoerotic attraction to the wrestlers is a powerful subtext in Foxcatcher, though the real Mark Schultz insists the film is inaccurate about this and other things. In any case, it is clear that John thinks he can make himself a he-man by buying off the wrestlers. Steve Carell’s performance—an incredible turnabout from his usual comedic roles—marinates the audience in John’s dank creepiness. Sporting a raspy, enervated voice and a hawk nose that accentuates his supercilious manner, Carell’s John never looks at anyone directly. He is always looking inward at his dreams of domination, or toward the glory he sees in the distance.
Mark Ruffalo’s work as Dave is clean, straightforward, and strong, but the real revelation of Foxcatcher is Channing Tatum as Mark. Behind Tatum’s sullenly handsome face is the soul of a little boy who feels that everything he ever wanted was snatched away from him. There is no ameliorating philosophy or human connection behind that face—only pain, anger, and loneliness.
Foxcatcher is a depressing story about people at cross-purposes and the tragedy that resulted when one of them turned out to be insane. It is an admirable film in many ways, particularly in its acting, but not in any real sense enjoyable.