Official Secrets (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
An important and necessary story about a whistleblower’s actions in the months leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by coalition forces.
Very well-acted, director and co-writer Gavin Hood navigates through the layered steps of Katharine Gun’s story in a full which becomes a lot of smaller genre films wrapped up in one larger vision.
Compelling, riveting, and equally frustrating and aggravating, Official Secrets is definitely a necessary and topical film.
The fact that this is a suspense/thriller for a bit, then a journalistic drama, then a mystery, and then a courtroom drama - those different looks and feels may prove too inconsistent to engage with for some viewers.
Dense and layered, you are going to need to really pay attention to get the sense of everything the film is putting before you.
Some will be disappointed the movie does not go further in its themes and storytelling.
In 1989, the United Kingdom Parliament repealed and replaced the 1911 “Official Secrets Act,” legislation which enacted the disclosing of classified information by government officials, and those with the clearance to view such material, a crime equal to treason.
Named after that legal principle, Official Secrets takes us back to a somewhat-overlooked and, in the American media, summarily dismissed true story. In 2003, a British translator, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), sees an e-mail drop into her inbox unexpectedly. Working for GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), she opens it and is floored to see that the National Security Agency (from the United States) has asked for assistance from the U.K. in spying on five United Nations members - Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, and Guinea.
The agencies’ collaboration is proposed as clandestine and designed to find evidence of malfeasance that could lead to blackmailing these particular countries into swaying a pending vote in the United Nations, authorizing the eventual 2003 invasion of Iraq. Gun is faced with a dilemma, both morally and professionally.
From her couch, she represents a lot of people around this time. She bellows at the television in opposition to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s claims that Saddam Hussein is in possession of weapons of mass destruction. She is equally aghast at similar emphatic comments made by then-President George W. Bush. She feels there is no evidence, does not believe Iraq has WMDs, and struggles compartmentalizing that.
As someone with clearance, Gun cannot divulge the contents of the e-mail. However, her convictions push her to share them with a close confidante, who then reaches out, as a source, to a reporter. Initially dismissing the story as improbable and not sourced, the London-based Observer newspaper has a rough-around-the-edges D.C. beat reporter (Rhys Ifans) demanding that the paper go all-in on the story. British-based reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who took the meeting with Gun’s friend in a parking garage late at night, begins trying to piece together the details around the leaked e-mail, determining whether the author of the message is legitimate and the information viable.
Directed by Gavin Hood, Official Secrets is basically a whole lot of genre films rolled into one. It’s a political thriller; Gun is arrested and brought to trial for violating the Official Secrets Act. It’s a timely, cultural commentary where Gun’s husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish Muslim, lays low when Gun’s story reaches international news and he fears of retribution or retaliation.
This is also a journalism procedural, where reporters in London and the United States try and work together to determine whether crimes have been committed by two of the most powerful governments in the world. And then it becomes a courtroom drama, when Gun stands trial and is represented by a tenacious barrister (Ralph Fiennes).
While this sounds way too ambitious for one film, Hood’s talents behind the camera, and the meticulously crafted screenplay by Hood and Gregory and Sara Bernstein, adapted from Marcia & Thomas Mitchell’s book about Gun and her story, navigates those waters effectively.
Though dense at times, the film remains a rather intriguing story to follow. As each storyline emerges, we are hooked from terrific performances, Knightley especially, crisp, concise editing by Megan Gill, sharply written dialogue, and an enigmatic score by Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian. all ushering us along.
Knightley captures the agitation of an activist-minded person who essentially has caught the proverbial tail and now needs to decide what to do with it. We can all scream about things from our living room and in a march with others. It becomes quite another thing entirely to be faced with an overwhelming choice, leaving you stunted and fearful of what your actions, or inaction, may mean. Smith proves a steadying force as lead reporter for the story, counterbalancing a wildly brash Ifans. Fiennes is likewise strong in his albeit truncated, but important, turn in the film’s final act.
Official Secrets requires attentiveness. Hood opts to just keep pushing through the details and uses the tonal shifts in his story to provide suspenseful layers of intrigue which both inform and entertain.
While the film could go deeper in its political commentary, and push much harder on Blair, Bush and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s misrepresentations to the United Nations in making the pitch to invade Iraq, Hood still manages to bring to light a shocking truth which proved to be a major catalyst in the roadmap to war in 2003.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, Ralph Fiennes, Conleth Hill, Monica Dolan, Tamsin Greig, Hattie Morahan, Ray Panthaki, Jeremy Northam.
Director: Gavin Hood
Written by: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood
Based on the book “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion” by Marcia Mitchell, Thomas Mitchell.
Release Date: August 30, 2019