History moves quickly these days, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Official Secrets, a political drama set in the lead up to the Iraq War, already feels like the ancient kind. It’s not, of course. The beginning of the century was not that long ago and the effects of the decision to invade Iraq are still being felt today, a reality that makes this just-period film vital political viewing for anyone unfamiliar with Katharine Gun and the courageous choice she made in trying to stop the Iraq War before it started.
Official Secrets stars Knightley as real-life whistleblower Katharine Gun, a former translator for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters. In 2003, Gun leaked an intelligence memo detailing the NSA’s request to Britain for help in collecting compromising information on UN Security Council members. The NSA’s goal? To blackmail the UN Security Council members into voting in favor of the invasion of Iraq, which would have made the war “legal” in the eyes of international law.
While the trailer for the film suggests this is a story predominantly about Gun, the film is ensemble-driven, especially as it goes on. While Gun is our gateway into this story, and the one whose actions everyone else is responding to, we also follow the newspaper journalists who broke the story (Matt Smith as Martin Bright, Rhys Ifans as Ed Vulliamy, and Matthew Goode as Peter Beaumont), and the lawyers who take on Gun’s case (played by Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma).
If that sounds to you like a cast that could carry almost any movie, you would be right. This script doesn’t particularly need carrying—the vitality of this story speaks for itself—but, because of the amount of ground this story covers, the film often prioritizes theme over character. It’s not a bad choice, per se, but don’t come into Official Secrets looking for a finely-wrought character drama.
Official Secrets isn’t breaking any boundaries when it comes to cinematic structure or genre form. It follows the rubric of a traditional political thriller. Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky, Tsotsi), who directed as well as co-wrote the script (alongside Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein, based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War by Marcia & Thomas Mitchell), does a solid job here, but a conventional one, choosing a clear message about institutional decay over cinematic complexity.
In part because of this, the film can, especially in its second half, veer into the pedantic, especially when it comes to Smith’s journalist character, who more or less states the theme of the film in the final act like he’s copied and pasted it from SparkNotes. But perhaps this isn’t the time for subtlety? There is a scene in the film that depicts an honest fumble that The Observer newpaper made when first breaking the story of Gun’s memo. It is a mistake that muddies the message of the story and allows forces with a self-interest in disproving it to cast doubt on the news’ validity at a time when we needed clarity more than anything. More than 15 years later, political clarity feels rarer than ever.
What Official Secrets lacks in cinematic ingenuity, it makes up for in subject importance. One’s enjoyment of the film rests, in part, on how much of Gun’s story and the mood in Britain leading up to the invasion of Iraq the viewer already knows. But, even if you were glued to the television and news media in the months leading up to the event in question, the topical nature of the questions this film asks will keep you riveted, as Official Secrets highlights the failures of the very institutions—including our governments, intelligence agencies, and press—put into place to protect us.
The film also calls into question the purpose and risks of legislation like Britain’s Official Secrets Act, which provides for the protection of state secrets and official information, mainly related to national security. In 1989, the Official Secrets Act was amended to remove the public interest defense, which previously allowed whistleblowers like Gun to argue that the public interest in disclosing the classified information outweighs the public interest in keeping it classified. It’s one of the many examples of the ways in which Official Secrets depicts how power structures can perpetuate and protect themselves.
The film does a particularly good job of differentiating the various stakes of the people taking part in making the memo public and then defending it. For Bright and the The Observer newspaper, there are the professional risks of potentially reporting on a fake memo and definitely ruining its relationship with the Blair government. For Gun, it is her personal freedom. For Gun’s husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee from Turkey, it is deportation back to persecution in his home country. For the soldiers of the United Kingdom and the people of Iraq, it is their lives.
Just because Official Secrets feels like a period drama now doesn’t mean it’s not extremely relevant to our current political culture. If stories are, first and foremost, about the time in which they are told, then Official Secrets is a desperate and effective plea to modern audiences to better hold our most powerful institutions accountable before it’s too late.
Official Secrets hits theaters on Aug. 30.
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