Sunday, October 26, 2014

In Praise of Alan Turing: Benedict Cumberbatch on CBS Sunday Morning

On CBS Sunday Morning today (October 26), Alan Turing, not Benedict Cumberbatch, took center stage. Nevertheless, the actor’s comments went a long way not only toward helping viewers understand Turing, but to anticipate The Imitation Game and Cumberbatch’s stellar performance.

In the five-minute segment, Cumberbatch was one of a half-dozen specialists (including a historian, an engineer, a professor who teaches a course about Turing, and Turing’s nephew) celebrating the genius mathematician’s contributions to the war effort. It was a different kind of interview for popular actor Cumberbatch. He was the focus of promos throughout the show to encourage viewers to keep watching at least through the Turing segment, which was broadcast in the final third of the program, but his interview was only a small part of the program's larger emphasis on Turing.

So what did Cumberbatch the actor get from this exposure?

For one, CBS Sunday Morning’s primary audience is 25- to 54-year-olds, who are a prime market for The Imitation Game. [The film opens in the U.S. on November 21, after being screened at 27 U.S. film festivals held between August 20 (Telluride) and November 15 (Key West).] Although the film has been heavily promoted at film festivals this autumn, the Sunday Morning audience likely hasn’t been able to see The Imitation Game yet. The segment about Turing not only was designed to pique their interest, but to portray Turing as an unsung war hero, a genius deserving of our respect and honor, and a persecuted homosexual—the latter point underscoring a sympathetic portrayal on screen.

The Imitation Game was significantly featured during the Sunday Morning segment. If audiences didn’t have the chance to get to know Cumberbatch very well, they at least saw his own brilliance as an actor through clips from the movie’s pivotal scenes. Whereas American audiences falling into CBS Sunday Morning's “typical” demographic may not be as familiar with Cumberbatch’s roles as Khan or Smaug, for example, they are more likely to be PBS viewers who may have seen Sherlock. As shown in the Imitation Game clips, Cumberbatch is again playing a highly intelligent character, and Sherlock fans watching the segment could easily make that connection—despite the fact that the CBS show never mentioned any of Cumberbatch’s other roles. The segment, after all, was focused on Turing, not Cumberbatch. What is more important, however, is that audiences who may primarily associate Cumberbatch with a clever consulting detective got to see moments of the actor’s performance as Turing—one that is very different from his depiction of Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, the actor took his place among the other specialists discussing Turing to briefly contribute his knowledge of the mathematician. When interviewer Anthony Mason asked whether it was intimidating to play Turing and portray that level of intelligence on screen, Cumberbatch smiled self-deprecatingly. “Hell, yeah, it is.” He and Mason toured the Imperial War Museum in London to view the Enigma machine. In a later interview clip, Cumberbatch explained Turing’s approach to defeating Enigma. Turing understood that “to beat a machine, you had to use a machine, rather than humans.”

One of the many film clips showed Turing’s machine at the moment it works and the Bletchley Park team realizes that they can defeat Enigma. “That moment in the film actually gave me goose bumps,” Cumberbatch enthused. “The hairs literally stood on the back of my neck, as it must have for them. That is a Eureka moment.”

Near the segment's conclusion, after mention of Turing’s posthumously received pardon, Cumberbatch commented that Turing had “a too-short epic life . . . . We owed him at least double that, I’d say.”

Segments like this one on CBS Sunday Morning are one way to repay Turing’s legacy by making audiences aware of the man, as well as the mathematical genius and war hero. For Benedict Cumberbatch to be highlighted in this segment pragmatically promotes him as an intelligent actor in an important forthcoming film and makes at least part of that film’s target audience in the U.S. aware of The Imitation Game and Cumberbatch’s range as an actor. However, it also illustrates his sincere mission to make moviegoers more aware of Alan Turing. In this interview, Cumberbatch received earnest attention because of his knowledge of Turing, rather than for being a sex symbol or a rising star, which are often the focus of fawning interviews by entertainment reporters.

Was this a good, if brief, exposure for Benedict Cumberbatch on U.S. television? Did he come across as sincere, intelligent, and concerned with Turing rather than with receiving accolades for his performance or promoting his latest film? and Was CBS Sunday Morning worth watching for this segment alone? Hell, yeah.


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