Mathematicians damn Enigma

Damning mathematician's review of Enigma, the new movie about the protocypherpunks of WWII's Bletchley Park that somehow fails to mention Alan Turing.

Instead of dramatising intellectual discovery, as Harris made some effort to do, the film has played up the spy-thriller elements that made his novel a 'best-seller'. If you want to see a mathematician in country-lane car chases, then swimming fully-clothed in a heavy sea, while shooting a pistol at a spying colleague trying to reach a surfacing U-boat, then you should see this film. The best I can say is that it pays faithful homage to Graham Greene's 1943 atmospherics. A deeper problem is that throughout the film, the codebreakers appear as browbeaten by spymasters in the Secret Intelligence Service, and that betrayal of material to Germany is pivotal to the plot. In fact, spying played very little role in the Anglo-American war with Germany (though no doubt it was more significant in relations with the Soviet Union): cryptanalytic intelligence, obtained through scientific ingenuity and organisation, was all-important. The problem lay not in treachery but in implementation: successful use of the intelligence would tend to give it away. The British success largely continued because the German command were quicker to suspect treachery on their side, in reality non-existent, than to doubt the efficacy of the Enigma machine. There are passages in the film where the radicalism of the scientific revolution is made clear enough: the resentment at the 'swots' suddenly being 'stars,' the amused contempt of the codebreakers for irrelevant brass-hat pep-talks. There is also a fine passage where Jericho quickly calculates on information-theoretic grounds whether the coming convoy clash will supply enough material to break back into the U-boat Enigma. But these are disconnected exceptions to the overall emphasis on a traditional war-story plot.



(Thanks, Will!)