Official Secrets (U.K./U.S.A., 2019)August 28, 2019
Official Secrets disrobes a scandal that received scant coverage in the U.S. media when it occurred some 15 years ago. Although hampered somewhat by a fragmented and procedural structure, the film nevertheless makes a compelling argument that the voice of the citizen in a Democracy isn’t as loud as one might like and it takes a strong constitution to play the role of the whistleblower. With a cast featuring a raft of prominent U.K. actors (Kiera Knightley, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans), the film examines one 2003 incident from three perspectives: the whistleblower (Katharine Gun, played by Knightley), the newspaper reporters who printed her story (Smith’s Martin Bright, Goode’s Peter Beaumont, and Ifans’ Ed Vulliamy), and the lawyer who defended her (Fiennes’ Ben Emmerson).
The movie opens in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war with both the United States and the United Kingdom doing a fair amount of saber-rattling. Katharine Gun, working as a translator for the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, a spy agency), is deeply disturbed by an intra-department memo requesting help in an illegal NSA operation to gather intelligence on various UN diplomats for the purposes of strong-arming their countries to support an anti-Iraq Security Council resolution. Following her conscience and recognizing it will mean violating the Official Secrets Act, Katharine copies the memo and passes it onto an anti-war friend.
Two weeks later, the memo surfaces at The Observer, where it comes into the possession of journalist Martin Bright. After consulting with two associates, Peter Beaumont and Ed Vulliamy, Bright does everything within his powers to verify the memo’s authenticity. His published story is initially a sensation but the U.S. government is able to discredit it. That doesn’t stop authorities from conducting an investigation. When Katharine confesses to spare her co-workers from grueling interrogations, she is swiftly arrested. The government, playing hardball, keeps her in a state of uncertainty for months about whether she is going to be charged. Additionally, they threaten her Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), with deportation. Recognizing the desperation of her situation, she contacts respected lawyer Ben Emmerson for representation.
From a theatrical standpoint, whistleblowers make uniquely sympathetic characters, especially in cases like this when their motives appear to be entirely altruistic and/or patriotic (unlike, for example, Edward Snowden or Julian Asange, whose narcissistic qualities counterbalance their likability). Katharine is driven solely by her conscience, risking everything in the naïve hope that she can stop a war. In the end, her efforts are fruitless but she places herself and her husband at risk. Her struggle, which is initially global in scope, ultimately becomes very personal. Having learned everything that has come out in the past 15 years, the forces aligned against Katharine seem pernicious and vindictive.
Gavin Hood, who once touched the A-list when he was pegged to helm Wolverine, has returned to the smaller films that initially got him noticed. Official Secrets is his first project since 2015’s blistering, underrated Eye in the Sky. The multifaceted aspects of the story at times makes it feel disjointed and some of the artificial “thriller” elements (such as a car racing through traffic to get to an airport and ominous thugs shadowing Katharine) are unnecessary. The movie also bites off a little too much – by having so many characters representing different parts of the story, there’s a sense that some of those mini-narratives aren’t fully fleshed out. It could be argued that the reporters’ segments deserve their own movie.
To date, The Insider probably represents the most compelling whistleblower story to make it to the big screen and, although the subject matter is different, Official Secrets generates in the viewer the same sense of outrage. Likewise, there are echoes of Spotlight in Official Secrets (insofar as investigative journalism is concerned), but the limitations of this movie are made evident by the comparison. Although Official Secrets may take liberties with the historical record, it’s effective as both a drama and a cautionary tale and the lessons it teaches are possibly more relevant in today’s world than they were 15 years ago.
Official Secrets (U.K./U.S.A., 2019)
Cast: Kiera Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, Indira Varma
Home Release Date: 2019-11-26
Screenplay: Gregory Bernstein & Sara Bernstein and Gavin Hood, based on the book by Marcia Mitchell & Thomas Mitchell
Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister
Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films