Film Review – Official Secrets
Official Secrets takes place in the post-9/11 world, one that grows closer to the war on Iraq. What preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a vote by the United Nations Security Council to vote in favor of the impending war. There was immense pressure on the members of the UN Security Council to agree with the U.S., so much so that the US and its allies were not above blackmailing for the vote they wanted. What happened in England during this time may not be at the forefront of Americans’ minds, but Official Secrets sheds light on one woman’s dilemma to do what she thought was right.
Based on the book, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion by Thomas and Marcia Mitchell, Official Secrets follows Katharine Gunn (Kiera Knightley), an employee of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) which is the equivalent of the U.S.’s National Security Agency (NSA). Katharine receives a memo directing her department to listen for anything incriminating that could be used to persuade certain countries to vote for the coming war. This memo does not sit well with her, and after clarifying its intent, she tells a trusted friend, Jasmine (MyAnna Buring), about it. As part of an anti-war group, Jasmine is uncomfortable with the information as Katharine is violating the Official Secrets Act by just telling her about it. Jasmine gives Katharine contact information for a group that may be able to help and confidentially get the news out to the public. What transpires is The Observer receives Katharine’s letter, which is a copy of the memo with handwritten notes about what it is. Writer Martin Bright (Matt Smith) takes the story, and the newspaper eventually publishes it, exposing the U.S. and England’s dirty tricks to get the war.
Director Gavin Hood, along with screenwriters Gregory and Sara Bernstein and Hood crafted a thrilling drama that has the audience on the edge of their seats. This feeling is the opposite of the expected since the opening scene is Katharine in the defendant’s box in a courtroom. The audience already knows what is going to happen, maybe not the final outcome, but that Katharine will be caught and brought to justice for what she did. The compelling part of the film is how it gets to that opening scene.
There are three parts of the films that are telling this true story: Katharine and her husband, the staff at The Observer, and the lawyers that take on Katharine’s case. While Katharine’s part of the film filled me anxiety, The Observer portion of the film is the source of most of the comedic moments in an otherwise serious film. Thankfully Rhys Ifans plays Ed Vulliamy, a crackpot journalist based in the States who has more than one way to get to the truth as he assists Matt Smith’s Martin Bright in verifying Katharine’s memo. Leading the comedic moments across the pond is Conleth Hill’s Roger Alton who looks like the type of newspaper editor that takes the maximum dose of Alka-Seltzer on a daily basis.
A violation of the Official Secrets Act is pretty cut and dry, and it is evident that Katharine knows she is guilty. However, to give her a better chance, a trio of lawyers take her case and try to call the government’s tactics into question. Leading the charge is the ever-talented Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson. Fiennes plays this character with quietness but an underlying strength and assuredness that is palpable to Katharine and his colleagues portrayed by Indira Varma and John Heffernan. He appears to be a no-nonsense kind of man who knows right from wrong or at least ethically-speaking, and it is these ethics that draws him to Katharine.
Dramas based on politically-charged real events with the bonus of investigative journalism are some of the most intriguing films to watch. Official Secrets is akin to other stellar films of this same genre like Spotlight and All the President’s Men. With a stellar cast, this true story is brought to life and illuminates one of the important whistleblowers of modern times. As previously stated, not many Americans are familiar with Katharine Gunn’s story and what it revealed about our government and our allies, but Gavin Hood did us all an excellent service by bringing it back to the forefront in a remarkable film. It is one of the strongest films of the summer that I have had the pleasure of seeing, and I would hope it will be remembered come awards season.