True Stories of Political Oppression, Grief Recovery and Imitation Games

The first day of Telluride was a rough one. Most of us were doing the big three: Wild first, after the Patron’s Brunch, then taking the gondola back down, racing over to the Werner Herzog for The Imitation Game, and then zooming back across town to catch Rosewater. That was the plan. Some of us made it, some of us didn’t. The only reason I made it was with the kind help of The Wrap/Indiewire’s Chris Willman, who had a car by some miracle and shuttled a few of us across town.

In Wild, Reese Witherspoon plays a woman who is recovering from the death of her mother, and all of the ways that unbearable grief destroyed her life when she stopped participating in the world. She decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a two-month odyssey that is mostly left in the “more capable” hands of men. The silence of the trail, the endurance of the journey, the miles of untouched wilderness begins to uncover what’s been buried as she finds herself more than capable, ultimately, of accomplishing this seemingly impossible goal. Laura Dern plays her mother in flashback, a domestic violence victim who ends up raising her two children on her own, eventually going back to school to try to better her life. We learn through the film what her presence meant to her daughter, how strong that love really is. This is the worst nightmare for a parent — to imagine the grief of your children in the event of your death. Well, let’s say it’s the second worst nightmare for a parent.

Witherspoon is rough around the edges, raw as you’d expect, given Jean Marc Vallee’s style. She plays a slightly unlikable, prickly character who doesn’t mince words. We spend nearly the whole movie with her so the key to this film is whether or not her journey moves you, whether it connects on some meaningful level. I think the film achieves the goal it set out to reach and it’s refreshing, frankly, to see a movie that’s about a woman that isn’t necessarily about her relationship to a man. It is a film that celebrates the importance of mothers as teachers and isn’t afraid of the emotions that brings us. I personally have a mental roadblock against movies about a woman (or a man’s) inner journey to self-discovery. But it’s hard to complain about a film about a woman these days since we don’t really have the luxury of complaining. Plenty of people who came out of the Chuck Jones loved this film, including a prominant Academy member. I expect Witherspoon to be a strong contender for a Best Actress nomination, and perhaps Laura Dern for supporting. But this, like many films you see at a festival, will depend somewhat on how the critics respond to it, or if it makes enough money to silence them.

The Imitation Game, from Norwegian film director Morten Tyldum, is another true story. Alan Turing was a mathematician, philosopher, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, educated at Cambridge and Princeton. He led the team that reverse-engineered the German’s Enigma machine and created a computational device to crack the impossibly complex codes being used by Nazi Germany during World War II. The film is an inspiring account of Turing’s genius in building a device that allowed the Allies to know which specific targets the Germans intended to strike, as well as the deplorable story of a gay man outed, convicted of “gross-indecency,” persecuted, and publicly humiliated. Just last year, on Christmas Eve, Queen Elizabeth II issued a pardon for Turing. Any more plot details would be to ruin it for you. It is an involving, touching biopic of a man who was probably autistic or certainly on the spectrum of Asperger’s. Though the film chooses not to explicitly depict Turing’s relationships with men as an adult, it does explore his same-sex attractions in boyhood. For this, we can expect push back from some in the gay community who might have hoped to see a more frank portrayal of Turing’s sexuality to drive the point home. While that aspect of Turing’s life might be interesting in a movie focusing on that angle, The Imitation Game has other things on its mind. It was a crime to be gay back then, so much so that just looking at another man could land you in prison, as it does with this character eventually.

But Turing (and this should go without saying) was more than just his sexuality. Gay characters, like women and other minorities, are often defined by their various communities as needing that to be the only thing and the most prominent thing that defines them. They must carry the burden of their communities — to right the wrongs of the past, to educate the public on the right way to think. It’s a heavy load and a lot of responsibility. What I liked about the films depiction of Turing is the way it’s mature enough to know that being gay is but one facet of a person’s life. Yes, it’s a movie about a gay genius, but his gayness is incidental to his genius. His work and his accomplishments were far more important to him that his sexuality, and those accomplishments are rightfully the movie’s true focus. The same goes for the female character — her being a woman wasn’t the only thing that defined her — in fact, her own sexual needs come second to her passion for her work.

The critics are already throwing around those irritating catch phrases — flawed and uneven — as though this film, or any film, was not a work of art but rather a new product off an assembly line, expected to adhere to an agreed upon standard. What is that standard? It is the uniform tastes of those who call themselves critics. Film criticism has changed too much, so dramatically, one has no choice but to trust oneself anymore. Sure, long reads by great writers are always going to be welcome, but this panel of jury members waiting with their thumbs up, thumbs down? Not my favorite thing about Oscar season. Let the wine breathe for a minute before you drink it down.

What I loved about The Imitation Game was the rich development of the characters, particularly the two leads — the sublime Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, and Keira Knightley, who plays what would have been Turing’s beard, had Turing been the kind of man to live that way. But to have a male lead in a film have interest in a female character for nothing more than her mind and her friendship? Practically unheard of in 2014. There is one scene with Knightley that was like knocking down every silly stereotype women in these types of films fulfill — the nurturer, the protector, the inspiration. No, this woman is there to do good work and to uncover the part of herself capable of doing that in an environment that was not friendly to unmarried women who were brilliant in math.

Cumberbatch brings bits of Sherlock into the role here, the part of that character that also chafes against social interaction while relying on his own connection to his high intelligence. But unlike Sherlock, Turing is far more vulnerable, and thus, much more sympathetic. Heartbreaking is probably the best word. Cumberbatch anchors this film through its rough patches, though I can see the reviews coming that talk about the “flaws.” We all look for perfection heading into the Oscar race (not our jobs), and thus, we sometimes collectively crush films that deserve consideration.

Knightley seems to be enjoying a fruitful career, given that she fits nicely into so many different types. All she ever really has to do is be her pretty self and she often fulfills what’s required of her. But every so often she steps outside her comfort zone and a strength emerges. She’s often fiery, and she’s often charming – but it is rare to see her handle so many conflicting feelings at once, her big brown eyes betraying hidden fragility. But it is Cumberbatch’s show, despite the strong supporting cast. You can’t take your eyes off him. It will be counted as one of the best performances of the year. As for the rest of its Oscar placements, we will have to wait for the reviews.

Finally, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater is the third true story of this first day in Telluride. To see this film and think it not Jon Stewart-y enough is to reveal how little one knows about Jon Stewart. To say this film would be ignored if Stewart hadn’t directed it is also wrong. It will be judged more harshly because Jon Stewart directed it. He is such a dominant presence in our American culture, so beloved, so funny, so woven in to how we interpret modern political analysis — it’s hard to separate Stewart from the brilliant film he’s made. Four years in the making, Rosewater was a labor of love for Stewart, whose own participation in the imprisonment of Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) might have been part of the reason he wanted to make the movie.

It’s a film about oppression of voice, the eternal and ultimately futile quest to destroy the brave act of bearing witness against corrupt regimes. The more people see it, the more they will know what the fuck went on in Iran during this time, but really, it is less about Iran specifically as it is about the nature of oppression and torture. Torture is not, Stewart said in the Q&A after the film, hidden away in grimy, dark rooms. It is institutionalized, accepted, and it’s everywhere.

Stewart approaches the work as he approaches his own career, refusing to define it as any one thing — humor is woven throughout, with much of the film looking like news footage we’ve seen and ignored every day of our lives as it blares out in monotone on international news programs like CNN. We just tune it out, don’t we here in America? Another day, another bombing. Another day, another journalist murdered. This matters to Stewart, the telling of this story. It is bigger than his own need to be validated as a director. It is about as far from an ego project as you can get. And even still, his primary goal will be to get his own celebrity out of the way to tell this story. Inexplicably, he more than accomplishes that here. Rosewater (along with Imitation Game) is not only one of the best films I’ve seen this year but one I will keep telling people to see and you know, the last thing I might say about it is that it was directed by Jon Stewart. Funny, that.

Stewart has already given back so much, when you consider everything he has done and continues to do just by being funny and occasionally biting and sometimes angry. But his sincerity here is equally effective in helping us edge closer to what is really important about our lives here and what isn’t.

All three of these films are anchored by vivid, memorable performances by actors who will likely be recognized by the end of the year, their true stories somehow shapeshifted into the Oscar publicity tour, one that is never easy to reconcile with the inside-out emotion the films themselves convey. A reminder that each of these films — and all great films — deserve to be regarded in terms above and beyond their “Oscar potential.”

So this is the good part. The bad part will be waiting on the reviews.

I will be writing longer pieces on all three of these films but this was my first take…

26 Comments on this Post

  1. Bryce Forestieri

    Including your assessment, I’m hearing a lot positive stuff about IMITATION GAME which is almost comforting. What I (and probably nobody) can’t discern from all the noise is whether it’s a good “Oscar movie” or just a good movie. I’m trying to avoid specifics because as it stands I already know way too much about this project and that’s just not good for my enjoyment of any film.

    So happy for Cumberbatch. I was getting a little worried there for a minute.

    We’ll see.

  2. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    It’s more irritating for me to read the reviews which use words like “flawed” and “uneven.” I swear, it’s like Apple just rolled out a new iPhone.

  3. steve50

    Kinda hard to avoid details, Bryce, when the film is based on a historical character – one we *should* know more about.

    Sounds like they got it right (Imitation Game) and echo relief for Cumberbatch.

    “flaws” – yeah. If they can’t back it up, I assume that means it’s like what’s in Dunaway’s eye in Chinatown – character.

  4. Best quote I’ve read in quite a while:

    The reviews from critics area already throwing around those irritating catch phrases – flawed and uneven – as though this film, or any film, was not a work of art but rather a new product off an assembly line, expected to adhere to an agreed upon standard.

  5. Bryce Forestieri

    It’s more irritating for me to read the reviews which use words like “flawed” and “uneven.”

    Already at Telluride? I’m almost glad QUEEN OF THE DESERT won’t have all the parts that “don’t quite work” explained to me before I see it. Get a grip.

    Kinda hard to avoid details, Bryce

    Absolutely. I just meant specifics to the film(making). I almost read an entire paragraph of performance “decisions” made by Cumberbatch. I’d rather just skip those.

  6. Jon Weisman

    I don’t agree with your reaction to the words “flawed” and “uneven.” The use of them doesn’t imply a desire for assembly-line creations. They simply mean that some parts don’t work as well as others. If, in turn, those bumps in the road affect your enjoyment or appreciation of the work, why is that not a valid critique?

    “Flawed” and “uneven” are ways of critiquing a movie without dismissing the movie. A flawed movie can still be a good one, can still elicit joy. But it’s reasonable to wish certain elements were better. It doesn’t mean you want everything to be the same. I get the concept that a film’s warts can add to its flavor — but it’s not as if they can’t also take away.

    You or others might avoid those those words, and that’s fine. But when you find fault with film X, as you certainly do from time to time, and explain it using different words, do you deserve to be dismissed for expecting assembly-line perfection?

    “Flawed” and “uneven” are admittedly shorthand, and the less one can back them up, the less meaningful they are. But even if one can’t articulate what they mean precisely, they hint at some level of the viewer not quite being completely fulfilled by the art, even if elements of the art did resonate.

  7. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    “For this, we can expect push back from some in the gay community who might have hoped to see a more frank portrayal of Turing’s sexuality to drive the point home.”

    I would hope not. No denying that we have as many crackpot gripers in the gay community as we have in the straight community, but I’d be ashamed of any gay people who say The Imitation Game isn’t gay enough.

    Was The King’s Speech straight enough? I don’t remember many scenes that made a big deal about King George being straight (assuming he was).

    Do we expect to see Winston Churchill chasing girls or staring at cleavage in order to “drive home the point” that he was straight? Of course not.

    I can’t imagine there are any influential leaders in the gay community who will be up in arms that we don’t get to see Alan Turing rolling around in bed with young lovers. If they do, they need to grow up.

    Sounds as if The Imitation Game makes no bones about the simple widely-known fact that Alan Turing was gay.

    But aside from his relationship with the young man that led to Turing’s arrest, next to nothing is known of Turing’s sex life. So any romping around with other men would have to be invented by the filmmakers. Fabricated sexual liaisons made up and inserted into the story — for what reason? I like Benedict Cumberbatch as much as anyone does, but I don’t need to see his bare butt in a movie or watch him kissing guys to satisfy some salacious desire to make Alan Turing’s sexuality “explicit.”

    I’d be insulted by a movie that did that, and I’d be disappointed in any gay critics or movie writers who pout about not getting to see Alan Turing have hot gay affairs.

    [Incidentally, another movie about cracking the Enigma code featured a fictional surrogate for Alan Turing named "Thomas Jericho" (Dougray Scott) who had a girlfriend (Kate Winslet) -- but even as a purely desexualized straight fantasy of "the straight guy who cracked the Enigma Code!" it was still a damned good movie, gripping and insightful. Lawrence of Arabia barely insinuated the truth about T.E. Lawrence's sexuality but I never see the gay community bitching about that.]

    As Sasha so rightly says: This is not a movie about Alan Turing having a gay ol’ time in WWII. It’s a movie about a gay man who was instrumental in the Allied victory, who was then rewarded for his genius by being hounded and shamed for his private life — a private life no different than millions of straight men enjoyed with no fear of persecution.

    So unless we think straight critics and straight movie writers will “push back” against Foxcatcher if it doesn’t give Carell and Tatum enough sex scenes or adequately depict their (separate) love lives, then it would be wrong to presume gay critics will complain because Alan Turing isn’t shown… doing… doing what?

    “The Imitation Game was a disappointment because we don’t get to see Alan Turing doing enough gay stuff”? — says some idiot.

    You guys please let me know if any gay movie writers anywhere say anything like that so I can go dickslap them.

  8. Bryce "Cauã's boytoy" Forestieri

    I’m already dreading those angry takes on the movie.

  9. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    “They simply mean that some parts don’t work as well as others.” The lack of admission to subjectivity is what bothers me from people who make those kinds of declarative statements when in fact “It doesn’t work” should be followed by “for me.” And that rarely happens anymore. I’ve been watching and reporting on critics for 16 years now and I can tell you it didn’t used to be this way. Critics didn’t go around using words like “flawed” – that’s a modern construct born out of a recent slew of critics who now form a mob. AO Scott, Andrew O’Hehir, Manohla Dargis, Richard Brody, etc – you won’t see them write such dismissive reviews of films as though the film is breaking with set standard. There is no set standard. I studied film and went to film school. I learned from professors who used to be critics – like Andrew Sarris at Columbia – and there was never a mention of such terms – no one ever said “flawed” – that comes from this shit, this awards shit that I helped to form. It comes from the idea of winners and losers.

  10. Great piece Sasha, I’m glad you liked Rosewater. It’s one of those films that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time and I’m ignoring the reviews till I see it. And both The Imitation Game and Wild look like great films .

    Apparently this year is gonna be another great year for cinema

  11. Bryce "Cauã's sidepiece" Forestieri

    I understand there are many priorities and in such a brief festival, but has Sasha programmed to catch either 99 HOMES or Cannes-carryover Argentinean wonder WILD TALES? I’d love to hear her take on either one.

  12. Hahah! I love it. You nailed all those phonies that use those words, as if they somehow have a corner on what’s perfect and what isn’t. You’re right that REAL critics don’t use that dismissive language — only the dime a dozen, 20/30-something white male variety does — but I didn’t realize it until now.

  13. ps. Poor Alan Turing. He was a goddamn super hero and his treatment is one of the great human tragedies and ugliest black eyes of “society” in the 20th century.

  14. Barb Chrenka


    First, I am a huge Cumberbach fan. But, Turing did not create the Enigma Machine.
    However, he developed a machine that broke the Enigma code. Oops!

  15. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    But, Turing did not create the Enigma Machine.

    Thanks, Barb! That’s my mistake, something I changed when proofreading. I know better. I screwed that up.

    We’ll change that line to say it this way:

    He led the team that reverse-engineered the German’s Enigma machine and created a computational device to crack the impossibly complex codes being used by Nazi Germany during World War II.

  16. It would seem to me that killing himself because of issues related to his sexuality might just overshadowed his feelings about accomplishments. Still briefly touching on his homosexuality does give it added cache for the Oscars with out having to go into the grittier details
    So far we have had Sherlock, Assange, Tejens, Frankenstein and the monster . He really does like to recycle the reserved, socially awkward genius with Asperger’s. or something similar.

  17. Bob Burns

    glad to be on Harv’s side for the first time in years.

  18. You’re right that REAL critics don’t use that dismissive language — only the dime a dozen, 20/30-something white male variety does

    And you know that… How?

  19. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    It would seem to me that killing himself because of issues related to his sexuality might just overshadowed his feelings about accomplishments.

    The you miss the point of his life. Like millions of other gay men in the 1950s, Alan Turing had found ways to live discretely and comfortably with his sexuality. He was untroubled by his sexuality for more than 39 years.

    What caused him to commit suicide was the cruelty of legal persecution, subsequent career ostracism, and other horrendous things done to him in the final two years of his life — too grotesque to explain in a brief reply.

    (Sasha has chosen not to mention those things in her piece, but that’s only because she wants people to to find out on their own. For anyone who’s unaware of the circumstances, it appears that the film will make it clear. Many of us already know because the details are part of the historical record — exhaustively documented in 3 excellent biographies).

    Since those things are revealed in the movie then the movie does not gloss over anything. Neither does it invent racy details of his private sexual life that nobody alive can possibly know.

    If there are people who think Alan Turing committed suicide because of his sexuality, then thank god for the movie. Prepare to have your eyes opened and the gaps in your understanding filled in with the facts.

  20. @tulips
    Do you even know what you’re talking about? “recycled” has that nauseous flavour of a snarky put down… Let’s look at this “recycling” in detail shall we?

    Sherlock doesn’t have asperger as many real persons with the illness have said and also a look on wiki could tell you that, Sherlock is a science man and tends to be a genius. also a TV miniseries.

    Tietjens had no asperger and neither was he reserved nor socially awkward-he had un unbending moral code and an intelligent mind. TV period drama mini series.

    Assange- definitely not reserved (he relishes the limelight or you wouldn’t have heard of him and his many many media releases) and a genius yes, and socially awkward yes if based on one scene of the film, but he managed nonetheless to assemble people around him, I wonder how with his social awkwardness.. First cinematic film.

    Frankenstein and the creature, Frankenstein – genius Yes, socially awkward no document on it, he got married and had a normal life according to the story, creature – created from dead bodies, socially awkward? Theater production.

    Turing-genius yes, socially awkward yes, second cinematic film.

    How is that “recycling” looking now with all those different visual art mediums and different characters? They only have the actor in common and tend to be on the intelligent side, and were they played by different actors, I bet 50 USD you wouldn’t know who they were. Biased much?

  21. rufussondheim

    Well, it doesn’t seem any of these are surefire contenders at this point (I could be wrong) which, I guess, is good.

    “Flawed” is such a nasty word to use to describe art, assuming these films should be called art rather than commerce (Let’s face it, most films are commerce, not art) Most films I love are “flawed” in some way and I often find the films flaws to be the most interesting aspects of the film, most flaws exist because of a personal choice by the filmmaker rather than the studied, correct way to make a film. It’s the flaws that keep them interesting, that make them fully dimensional.

    As for “uneven” well, that’s a fair criticism, in my opinion. It just means that the viewer’s appreciation wavered at various points throughout the film. Sure, if the critic uses the word “uneven” without an explanation it’s a cheap and easy word choice, but then we all make cheap and easy word choices. Heck, that’s one of our flaws.

  22. Yes, Bebe, like Gustavo said…what do you mean?

  23. I can already see tug of war on oscar gold between benedict cumberbatch and steve carrell. Uh ohh

  24. That is such an irritating, patronising, infuriating review. There’s something so belittling about a straight reviewer lecturing gay men about how they’re supposed to feel about anther gay man.

    You can only take this argument about ‘there’s so much to Turning than his gayness’ that leaves me dumbfounded. Biographers and his own words all point to his relationship with another boy when young spurred on his entire determination to see the world in a different light..

    And for hose who say that next to nothing is known about his sex life, that is ridiculous. He was castrated and killed/committed suicide because he was having sexual relations with a younger, rougher man.

    If the film were about a brilliant heterosexual who was prosecuted and punished for having affairs with women, at the very least the hero would share a kiss with a woman.

    The double standard of this film and ignorant critique is about as much as one could expect.

    Oh, and for the record, in future, it’s stupid to get your defence in early when you’re going to attack a section of the community for possibly having a different idea to your own

    . Gay men have been appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of film ever since film was invented. And if you look carefully, you;ll find a number of gay men write, direct, finance, produce and even star in films.

  25. unlikely hood

    Great piece, keep these coming

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