Review: 'Official Secrets' a flawed portrayal of a heroic act
3 of 5 stars
Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode
Release Date: Aug. 30
While it drifts into cliché far more often than necessary, director Gavin Hood's 'Official Secrets' tells a complicated true story in a relatively concise way, bringing the viewer into the trenches of a longstanding fight against corruption and warmongering.
Katherine Gun, played in this film by Keira Knightley, was a translator for the British intelligence agency GCHQ in January 2003 when she leaked top-secret information in the lead-up to the Iraq War. A memo she and her colleagues received from their partners at the NSA instructed them to collect intelligence on United Nations Security Council members, solely for the purpose of blackmailing those members into voting for a resolution on the war.
Gun chooses to break the law and anonymously leak the memo in an effort to embarrass the U.K. and U.S. governments while hopefully preventing war. The Iraq War begins in February, though, much to Gun's dismay as she is aware of the legal jeopardy she's already placed herself in. Her leak, if exposed, would be a violation of the U.K. Official Secrets Act, which prevents people from disclosing state secrets or other forms of classified information.
Throughout the film, Knightley does a tremendous job conveying Gun's internal conflict and strong political beliefs. It's established early on in the film that Gun was staunchly anti-war and highly skeptical of the pro-war arguments being made by officials in both governments.
It's also clear that British government officials are the "bad guys" in this movie from the get-go, and in hindsight it's easy to see why, given the blunders and atrocities of the Iraq War. It was arguably one of the worst and most consequential foreign policy decisions in American history and the British government went right along with it.
The war was clearly borne out of sinister motives and Gun recognized that, particularly when she received the infamous memo from the NSA. But the national conversation in the U.K. was complicated, much like it was in the United States at the time. At the heart of that conversation was the news media tasked with covering the war and – eventually – Gun's leaks and impending trial.
A secondary character that often steals the spotlight from Gun in the movie is news reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith). He and a team of journalists from The Observer are grappling with their paper's pro-war editorial stance when he receives the leaked memo through a third party and it leads to a groundbreaking story.
Bright is joined in the reporting effort by Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) and the eccentric, sometimes radical Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans). He faces initial pushback on the story from editor Roger Alton, played by Conleth Hill of Game of Thrones fame.
While the story of how the journalists handled Gun's memo is compelling, particularly as the legal case against Gun progresses, it almost seems like the reporters are the primary focus of the story while Gun awaits her perceived legal doom in the background. The film tries to make up for that by ratcheting up the emotion and focusing on Gun and her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), but it feels more like forced dramatization than organic character development.
There is plenty of comic relief during what is a frequently intense movie, and that writing should be commended, but the quality of the film's narrative begins to diminish as more and more scenes begin to tell the same story, over and over. We get it, her action was heroic and morally upstanding. You don't have to beat the audience over the head with sympathetic moments or throw in depressing war casualty statistics to prove that Gun was right.
The strongest moment of the movie – acting, writing, et cetera – was during Gun's interrogation by British intelligence officials. It was a convincing performance by Knightley that was emotionally resonant; everything after that just felt like overkill.
Something also needs to be said about the movie's overall message: Not all whistleblowers are equal. Gun's motives were admirable and her actions exposed corruption and backroom intimidation of the worst kind, but they don't excuse the actions of every whistleblower.
Some whistleblowers have put the security of nations, diplomats and intelligence assets at risk. Others have undermined elections or assisted in nefarious hacking efforts. Many others have done what Gun did or more to pull back the curtain on everything from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to widespread NSA surveillance of civilians.
Many whistleblowers are heroes who put their careers, families and lives on the line for a cause. Others had ulterior motives or ended up doing more harm than good. People in the latter group often think they are closer to the former.
Gun's actions were heroic and her story is inspirational and should be admired. But 'Official Secrets' struggles with a propensity for hyperbole and narrative choices that create a cloudier picture than necessary, only bringing the hero of the story front-and-center when it's time for her to earn more sympathy points.
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