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[whitespace] 'Enigma'
You're Gonna Like the Way You Look, Damn It: The high-pressure sales tactics of Jeremy Northham (right) at the Men's Wearhouse leave Dougray Scott confused and angry.

Left Out in the Code

Gripping but dense 'Enigma' strands audience in blizzard of technicalities

By Steve Palopoli

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS like you've got to be a freakin' cryptographer just to go to the movies lately. Like, for instance, when you're watching Enigma, the new film about British code-crackers in World War II that is as densely technical as any movie should legally be allowed to get--possibly more so. I personally wished I'd brought along an extra brain just to handle the dialogue, which is part movie script and part standard-issue code book.

What's great about this movie, though, is that it really put those snobs who can't enjoy a good popcorn flick to the ultimate test. For a guaranteed laugh, take the most pretentious moviegoer you know--the one who's always droning on about how movies in general and your favorite gross-out comedy in particular are so insultingly stupid--to this one, and then make him or her explain in detail exactly what happened and how. Friends, it can't be done.

OK, so Enigma is too smart for its own good. It's also at times laughably melodramatic, featuring no less than three moments in which one character does the exit-stop-pause-spin-zing sequence to another for Maximum Dramatic Effect.

But, damn it, there's just something cool about movies like this too, a certain gee-whiz factor that makes you tingle when you hear about how these guys have got to break a code with "150 million million million" or "four thousand million billion" possible permutations--in four days. And then you think about the fact that this is a true story. And then you think, "Hey, they must have succeeded. We won, didn't we?" And then you try to figure out how they're possibly going to do it, and once you get that far, you're hooked.

This is also one of those movies where the characters constantly sum up what's happening to the other characters, and thank God for that. It'll usually keep you from getting too lost. Leads Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet do pretty well with keeping all the shop talk straight, which helps.

As a study in how the Brits sunk the German navy, this German-British-American production (there's some irony for you) comes off as a cinematic rebuttal to U-571, the Hollywood World War II sub actioner that left some historians as well as--from the sound of it--the entirety of England in a huff by suggesting that Americans were responsible for breaking the Nazis' Enigma code. Never mind that that was the least of U-571's factual errors, or that, unlike Enigma, it was not based on actual events in the first place (the actual U-571 was in fact never even captured).

The crazy thing is that despite its level of detail (and the fact that it's sure to be a heck of a lot more realistic than John Woo's upcoming code story Windtalkers) Enigma is still going to get criticized by WWII nerds who will make some nitpicky detail the basis of their rant about how this film isn't accurate enough. C'mon people, we can't depend on movies to teach us about what really happened in World War II. That's what the History Channel is for!

Enigma, (R; 117 min.), directed by Michael Apted, written by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Thomas Harris and starring Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows, and Jeremy Northam, opens Friday at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz.

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From the June 5-12, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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