Director Gavin Hood proved to be something of a mixed success upon his latest entry into political cinema, as 2015’s Eye in the Sky was an effective enough thriller with a somewhat reductive view on the ethics of drone warfare. That film’s inability to take an effective stance on the supposed controversy it presented made me a little nervous about his follow-up, Official Secrets, since the ethical standing of Katherine Gun’s infamous whistleblowing is less an issue of political difference than it is a definitive stance against the use of national security as an excuse for governments to conduct illegal operations. Thankfully, Hood seems to understand that the heart of Gun’s story resides with Gun and her allies and doesn’t bother trying to justify the British government’s stance. The resulting film is perhaps a bit too beholden to conventional means of telling these kinds of fight-the-system stories to actually be considered great, but it’s a story worth telling and told with competence sufficient to add Katherine Gun to your understanding of history.
For those who aren’t aware, Katherine Gun (here portrayed by Keira Knightley) was a translator in the British Government Communications Headquarters who, in 2003, leaked a memo detailing an illegal spy operation by the United States and British governments to blackmail members of the United Nations into voting in favor of the invasion of Iraq. This memo ultimately did not prevent the invasion from going forward without United Nations approval, but it did spark a protracted investigation by the media and Gun's prosecution by the British government, exposing the British government’s complicity in starting an illegal war.
Hood, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory and Sara Bernstein, divides his attention between three fronts: Katherine Gun herself, investigative journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who broke the story in The Observer, and Gun’s defense attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes). The story plays out in procedural fashion, so the only personal life you really become invested in is Gun’s, while Bright’s and Emmerson’s subplots exist primarily as expository handholding through the elements over which Gun herself had little to no control. The dialogue is not devoid of comic relief, but overall it’s a tense, gloomy affair that finds a few brave people standing up against the might of a government in whatever limited capacity in which they are able, only finding some measure of success because they had the courage to do so. This format occasionally results in contrived set pieces that portray real events, if not exactly how these people likely reacted during those events, then in terms escalating tension within the deceptively banal settings of newsrooms and courtrooms. It's transparently artificial, but it’s certainly effective.
A film like this generally relies on recognizable actors rather than distinct performances to give the audience a necessary connection to the emotion sans melodrama, and it’s here where the three leads of their respective subplots vary rather wildly. Fiennes is fine as Emmerson, investing the attorney with a moral conviction that butts heads with the reality of the State’s overwhelming legal power, but Smith’s perpetual smirk would make newsman Bright feel almost jovially caricatured were it not for how flat his dialogue is written. However, this is Knightley’s show, and she gives an incredibly nuanced performance, showing how Gun’s fears for herself and her immigrant husband (Adam Bakri) are ever-present and terrifying in the face of the government’s continued harassment, yet her moral convictions are so strong that she feels compelled to pursue a plea of not guilty in order to expose her government’s lies. It’s a hell of an anchor to a film that might otherwise have floated free into its disparate storylines.
Official Secrets may not be the best film in theaters this year, but it ranks among the most important, at least in terms of exposing an audience to Katharine Gun’s story and ensuring that issues of whistleblower protection, attacks on freedom of the press, and deep state corruption are fresh in people’s minds, particularly as those issues remain relevant sixteen years later. It can be easy to write these things off as normal, particularly if they have no direct effect on your daily life. But they matter, and Gavin Hood’s part in keeping awareness alive doesn’t go unappreciated.