Whatever you think of the term "whistleblower" (and as I'm writing this review, how appropriate to bring the question up), filmmakers have long taken to the stories of everyday people looking to expose injustices, from 1976's 'All The President's Men' to 2016's 'Snowden' being just a few of the examples.
Despite growing up in the exact time period of the Iraq War, I've admittedly always been out of the loop when it comes to exploring the deeper causes and effects of the conflict, so hearing a film like 'Official Secrets' was going to attempt to shed some light on a few of the key events prior to the war at least was addressing a subject matter in a way I was curious about.
What intrigued me even more was hearing Gavin Hood was going to be tackling the project, and can we state the obvious right now: Gavin Hood is a solid filmmaker. I know he gets a lot of flack (some deservedly so) for 2009's 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine,' but watch 2005 'Tsotsi' or even 2015's 'Eye in the Sky' and you'll see that he can tell legitimately compelling narratives (hell, go back and give 2013's 'Enders Game' another shot, it's not nearly as messy as you might remember).
But alright, redemption arcs for directors aside, does 'Official Secrets' give us a worthwhile, topical thriller or fall into tired clichés despite the best of intentions? Well, while I can't say it completely avoids the latter, what Gavin Hood delivers on this project is a highly respectful, constantly engaging whistleblower story that I found myself thinking about a good amount after the screening. In other words, it's not reinventing the wheel on true stories, but I really got a kick out of it, in more ways than one.
In 2003, Katherine Gun (played by Keira Knightley) is working as a translator at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in London. While going through her emails, she is sent a classified document from the NSA in the U.S. In the email, she learns of U.S. intelligence interests to bug communications of several United Nations representatives to attempt to swing a vote for war in Iraq, which seems to be supported by the British government.
Horrified by the implications of the memo, Katherine makes a copy and sends it to an anti-war activist, who in turn gives it to Martin Bright (played by Matt Smith), a journalist from the British newspaper The Observer, which is pro-war at the time. Bright, along with reporters Peter Beaumont (played by Matthew Goode) and Ed Vulliamy (played by Rhys Ifans), corroborate the memo's authenticity over the coming weeks and convince the paper to release the memo.
But with her co-workers being under scrutiny from the higher ups at GCHQ, Katherine outs herself, is arrested, and released to await potential charges in violation of the U.K's Official Secrets Act. Over the course of the next year, the Iraq War does eventually begin, and the story follows Katherine, the journalists at the Observer, and Ben Emmerson (played by Ralph Fiennes), a human rights lawyer taking Katherine's case, in a race against time to prove Katherine's innocence and expose a bigger injustice than any single case
The thing I really wound up taking away from the film was how it tied together a lot of things I had heard about the beginnings of the Iraq War over my life and put them into a bit of clearer context. Obviously, in terms of real life history, every move like this takes a bit of dramatic liberties, but Hood's apparent interviews with Gun, Bright, and other real life figures in the story really shine through in making a cohesive narrative. There's a particular scene in the third act of the film where Katherine and the lawyers are discussing whether or not the Iraq War has basis in legality. While it's pretty heavy on exposition, the back-and-forth repertoire really drives the ethical conflicts of the issues forward, whether U.S/U.K relations at that time, the seemingly convoluted timeline of British politicians, or even the basis of Katherine herself in the conflict.
It's that question of why did Katherine release the memo that makes her such a compelling protagonist. Knightley plays Katherine Gun as modest and careful, with many of her best moments being the subtle anger that her facial expressions alone can deliver, and it really is something to watch. I was equally impressed with Hood's balancing of Gun as the central focus and character with the stories of the Observer journalists and the lawyers. I never felt bored as the film crisscrossed in its second half between its story points because I was still fully invested in Katherine's fate. In addition, the supporting cast around her give the film a back-and-forth sense of dialogue reminiscent of some of the similar films I mentioned at the start of this review.
I suppose if the film is at fault, it's is in two key areas. For one thing, if you're looking for something a bit more unique in terms of these types of story, you might walk away thinking this is nothing special. It's full of expositional dialogue with a lot of very finger-pointy moments for the audience to go "wow, I can't believe that," and it can feel a bit melodramatic in that sense. I've also heard some point out that, regarding that structural choice in the second act, Katherine's story (and Knightley's performance) get overshadowed as a result of Hood's focus to other avenues. While I contend that the choice makes sense for the story, I will concede that it does feel a bit contradictory to where the focus of the story is attempting to lead us.
For me at least, 'Official Secrets' makes up for its at times simplistic structure with a fascinating, well-paced story to tell. It capably builds consistent tension and ethical questioning around its real life source material, brought to life by a respectful and welcomingly different performance from Keira Knightley. More than likely, you haven't heard anything about this movie (it's subject matter counterpart, 'The Report' with Adam Driver, seems to be getting a bit more buzz as of late) and you might be as positively invested as I was, but if you're looking for a movie with topical subject matter that's equal parts compelling and interesting, I'd sincerely tell you to seek this one out.
Overall, I give "Official Secrets" 7.5/10
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