2019, R, 112 min. Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Adam Bakri, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, MyAnna Buring, Jack Farthing, Indira Varma, Jeremy Northam, Conleth Hill.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Sept. 6, 2019
In the political lexicon of the 21st century, the whistleblower is either a patriot or a traitor. The act of divulging classified governmental information for a purpose other than espionage is a polarizing topic without any shades of gray. Mention the name of the exiled Edward Snowden or the recently (again) incarcerated Chelsea Manning in a conversation with a random group of people and observe. Blood pressures will elevate; decibels will rise. It seems everyone has a strong opinion, one way or another.
While most Americans are familiar with Snowden and Manning’s heroic acts/criminal transgressions (you choose), few know the story of Katharine Gun (Knightley), a low-level intelligence specialist employed by Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters at the time George W. Bush and Tony Blair were shamelessly using scare tactics in 2003 to rally support for another invasion of Iraq, unequivocally alleging Iraq’s murderous madman Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction without any credible proof. As chronicled in the informative Official Secrets, when a United States National Security Agency memo requests the GCHQ’s assistance in gathering information on the members of the United Nations Security Council who may hesitate to support W’s bid for a seemingly baseless war, an anguished Gun leaks the email in an effort to expose the subterfuge and prevent the loss of innocent lives. Add the threat of her Muslim husband’s deportation and the British government’s prosecution of Gun for treason, and you have the template for a compelling movie, or at least a provocative one. But while Official Secrets clearly falls in the hero camp in relating Gun’s little-known story this side of the Atlantic, it lacks contagious passion. Credit director Hood for eschewing sensational melodramatics, but the movie has all the excitement of a Wikipedia page.
Based on a 2008 nonfiction British bestseller, the screenplay (co-written by the husband-and-wife team of Gregory and Sara Bernstein, along with Hood) is a linear narrative without an arc. The relatively short lead-up to Gun’s surreptitious disclosure of the damning memo throws you off from the beginning. Aside from witnessing her yell at the telly every time Bush or Blair appear onscreen, you know little about her principles or politics before she takes that fateful step (after all, she spies on people for a living). Once the repercussions of Gun’s actions begin to domino, Official Secrets picks up some momentum. Unfortunately, the middle of the film also clumsily begins to pursue a finger-wagging agenda, occasionally giving Knightley a soapbox upon which to express her indignation and allowing others the opportunity to comment on her character’s courage, as if you might have overlooked it. By this time, the rumbling score by Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian has gone from annoying to irritating. Though the third act ends surprisingly, if not anticlimactically – truth is indeed stranger than fiction – the film can’t resist one final finger wag, this time from the esteemed barrister (a likable Fiennes) who brilliantly mounts Gun’s legal defense by barely raising that finger. It’s an off-putting and gratuitous gesture to a movie that should have proceeded from the beginning with a raised fist.
For an interview with Observer editor Martin Bright, played by Matt Smith in Official Secrets, read "Secrets and Lies: The Truth of Official Secrets," Sept. 5.