Screenshots: Why you can’t trust what you see

In the end—and in every situation—we never know the whole story.

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(Image: Getty Images)

I wouldn’t call myself a “screen junkie”, but I do enjoy watching movies. One of the best I’ve seen in recent years is an historical drama called The Imitation Game—a biopic about English computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing. For me, the film nails the balance between a great script, interesting characters and terrific set pieces. Then there’s the iconic quote that encapsulates the entire film, and the life upon which it is based: “Sometimes it is the people no-one imagines anything of who do the things that no-one can imagine.”

It’s one of those poignant one-liners that may serve as a lifeline for those who feel—or are made to feel—weak or insignificant. If it was used in a sermon, one might even respond with a “mmm” or “amen”.

However, upon re-watching the film recently, there was a different quote that resonated with me more.

First, though, some context.

The Imitation Game presents two alternating storylines: Turing’s work as a codebreaker during World War II and an investigation into the mathematician’s life several years later. In the latter, detective Robert Nock1, unaware of Turing’s previous military history, is convinced the reclusive professor is doubling as a Soviet spy. His investigation—or manhunt—ultimately leads to Turing’s arrest, but not for the reasons he presumed; Turing is detained for “gross indecency” on the grounds of his homosexuality.

The arrest is unsatisfactory to Nock, who maintains Turing is hiding deeper, darker secrets. Nonetheless, the detective gets what he wants: an opportunity to interrogate Turing.

However, as Turing slowly discloses details of his past, including how he successfully cracked the German army’s Enigma code, which shortened the war by an estimated two to four years2, a notable change in Nock’s demeanour takes place. Once convinced of Turing’s felony, the detective is now faced with a man—and a story—of tremendous complexity.

“Now, detective, you get to judge,” Turing says slowly. “So tell me—what am I? Am I a machine? Am I a person? Am I a war hero? Am I a criminal?”

Nock shakes his head. His response is short but certain.

“I can’t judge you.”

As people we see so little, yet we think we know so much. A man stumbles out of a bar at 1am and we think we have him figured out. A pregnant teenager sits alone at the rear of the church and we assume we know her story.

But we don’t. How could we? We may watch and even try to “walk in their shoes”, but we can never tap into a person’s mind or soul.

Here’s something we need to remember: we never know the whole story. All we have are segments, snippets and screenshots of each other’s lives. Therefore, “brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgement on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour?” (James 4:11,12, NIV, italics added3).

Within every life is an immeasurable amount of depth and detail, most of which we will never see4. Embracing such an idea enables us to shelve our assumptions and accusations, to the point where we, like Nock, may look a person in the eye and offer but one, powerful verdict.

“I can’t judge you.”

  1. The character of Robert Nock is not based on a real person. He is the only character in the film to have a fictional name. Although a biopic, The Imitation Game takes few liberties with the real story of Alan Turing. For an overview of the differences, visit historyvshollywood.com.
  2. Historians estimate shortening the war saved the lives of 14 to 21 million people. See more at biography.com/news/alan-turing-biography-imitation-game.
  3. See also Matthew 7:1-5.
  4. For a more thorough description of this idea, see definition of sonder (neologism) at dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com.