Setting aside its absolutely dreadful title, director Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets proves a compelling political/journalistic thriller based on true events and a surprisingly juicy bit of drama set during the lead up to the war in Iraq.
Keira Knightley plays Katherine Gun, a real-life British intelligence translator who worked for England’s Government Communications Headquarters, sort of like America’s NSA, circa 2003. Gun comes into possession of a memo from the NSA implicating surveillance efforts for key members of the United Nations Security Council, an act that would essentially strong-arm votes for George W Bush’s post-9/11 war, and one that would require support from allies in British intelligence. This doesn’t sit well with our heroine, so she leaks the document to an anti-war activist friend, setting into motion a series of events that finds famed newspaper The Guardian printing the information and exposing the US and England’s lies. Meanwhile, Katherine confesses and faces the consequences of violating the Official Secrets Act, a Parliamentary action established by Margaret Thatcher in 1989 to gag whistleblowers, even when the information is in line with public interest.
As we know, the war in Iraq began without the needed UN votes anyway, and the whole WMD thing was nothing but a thinly veiled lie. Gun’s own conflicts raged on despite her unabashed patriotism. Knightley tackles the role with grace and intensity despite odd moments of shouting at the very people trying to help her. A brief but powerful turn from Ralph Fiennes as a lawyer from the organization Liberty (like our ACLU) is satisfying in its ruminations on morality and governmental ethics, and Dr. Who alum Matt Smith’s role as Guardian journalist Martin Bright follows in the footsteps of requisite journalism movies like The Post and All the President’s Men.
Still, Official Secrets vacillates a little too much between its storylines. Is it a lesson in ethos, a newspaper movie, a political thriller or … what? It’s kind of all those things, though it doesn’t stick with any one long enough. Granted, it’s always thrilling to see films about regular people and hard-nosed journalists stepping up to do what’s right against seemingly terrifying odds, but in painting with broad strokes, many of the characters therein feel like caricatures. Game of Thrones‘ Conleth Hill, for example, serves up a weirdly hammy performance as a Guardian editor underneath whose epithets and profanity the ground shakes.
Knightley’s scenes begin to feel less important somehow, although it seems like Hood’s shots after she comes clean are framed like CCTV camera angles; apropos both for the movie’s content and for a country that famously has more surveillance cameras than citizens.
In the end, we learn (or re-learn) governments lie to justify wars, though the real sadness lies in how we usually just nod our heads like that’s the most obvious thing in the world.
+Journalism is cool; crazy interesting
-Loses focus; Knightley's constant yelling
Directed by Hood
With Knightley, Fiennes, Smith and Hill
Violet Crown, R, 118 min.