Scientists have never been so sexy. This month, the silver screen hosts a parade of films about men whose appeal lies in their brains rather than their brawn. First, there was The Theory of Everything, a look at the relationship between scientist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). Then, a whole troupe of scientists and engineers tried to save mankind in Christopher Nolan’s apocalyptic blockbuster, Interstellar. Now, Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for out-witting all foes in the BBC’s “Sherlock,” comes to theaters as Alan Turing, father of the modern computer, in The Imitation Game.
Our cinematic fascination with scientists might be new, but the idea behind The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game is a tried and tested Hollywood formula: the Great Man biopic. (And yes, they’re usually men.)
We watch biopics for the same reason we read memoirs and obituaries—to walk through the chapters of another person’s timeline, to feel that life has a narrative. But a successful biopic doesn’t just reenact events or an individual’s journey; it is a study in character. We go into a movie knowing that the subject was as genius or a hero, a martyr or titan. We should leave with a more nuanced understanding of who he was, his complexities and flaws. Amadeus gave us a Mozart who was as childish and irresponsible as he was genius. Milk showed us a man whose inexhaustible political zeal exhausted those closest to him.
Where both Theory and Imitation fall short, despite the efforts of their stars, is that they seek to glorify rather than to interrogate their subjects. Of course, both of these men deserve celebration. Hawking fundamentally changed our understanding of black holes, quantum mechanics, and relativity, all the while popularizing science with his best-selling A Brief History of Time. And Turing was responsible for breaking Enigma (Nazi Germany’s secret military code), inventing the computer, and saving millions of lives. His was a gripping, extraordinary tale, and Cumberbatch excels as Turing, his watery eyes, stiff jaw, and slight stutter conveying a man who is awkward and difficult, vulnerable and brilliant.
But both movies are content to rest on their protagonists’ laurels without further dissecting the complexities of their character. Hawking and Turing are both martyrs, one imprisoned by his dysfunctional body and the other by the bigoted social mores of his time: Turing was gay and committed suicide after a year of government-mandated hormone therapy intended to “cure” him of homosexuality.
Moreover, the films tiptoe around the Great Men’s flaws, gesturing to them, but lacking the conviction to approach them in even an indirect way. The Theory of Everything is a love story, but the Hawkings’ marriage ultimately fails. Hawking leaves his wife—whose care, patience, and support kept him alive for years—for his nurse, but his motives remain totally unexplained.
In The Imitation Game, there is a similar dearth of emotional depth when Turing “breaks up” with his erstwhile fiancé and only friend, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Turing comes out to Joan, who then tenderly proposes a platonic marriage of minds. Turing’s reply is chilling and dismissive. But then the movie moves on, and the two are once again friends. These moments reflect a general problem with these movies, which show events but make little attempt to connect them to motives, either too intent on sanctifying their subjects or too insecure to risk complicating them. Even the work remains uncomplicated. There is no sense of why they’re interested in their particular scientific problem, what drives them to persist, other than a sort of predetermined destiny. Turing and Hawking were men—extraordinary ones—but men nonetheless. These movies turn them into fantasies.
Both The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are pleasing to watch, especially for Anglophiles who enjoy the predictable charms of Masterpiece Theater: period trappings and solid performances. But they leave little lasting impression. After seeing these films, we know little more about Hawking or Turing than what we could have gleaned from their Wikipedia pages. Both they, and the fine actors portraying them, deserve better.