Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a deep dive into a specific case of extraordinary individual heroism. The R-rated drama’s based on true events and focuses on the incredible story of Katharine Gun, a woman who put her safety of her country and the lives of British soldiers over her own welfare.
Two-time Oscar nominee Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game, Pride & Prejudice) delivers an outstanding performance as Katharine Gun, a British intelligence specialist who works for the GCHQ (Britain’s signals intelligence agency). As the possibility of an invasion of Iraq inches closer to reality, Katharine and the other employees in her unit receive an unusual memo from the NSA. The memo reveals the British government is assisting United States President George W. Bush’s plans for war by gathering compromising material on members of the United Nations Security Council.
It’s a shocking request and one that immediately sets Katharine on edge. Her unit is expected to gather the material so the United States and British governments can blackmail UN Security Council members to vote for an invasion of Iraq. The request doesn’t sit well with Katharine who, prior to the memo, would often tell her husband (Adam Bakri) she believed Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush were spreading lies about the need to invade Iraq.
During her employment, Katharine had obeyed the rules and never gave the GCHQ any reason to doubt her loyalty. However, the memo was an unethical and morally corrupt attempt at involving her country in what would be an illegal war. Fully aware of the consequences, Katharine acted and leaked the memo in defiance of her government and at the risk of being labeled a traitor.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post told the story of the Washington Post’s decision to print the Pentagon Papers. Hood’s film also involves the process involved in the decision by a prominent paper to print material provided by a whistleblower. In this case, it’s the British newspaper, The Observer, and the implications of that paper releasing a copy of the NSA memo. That aspect of the story could have been dry or detracted from Katharine’s story. It doesn’t due to smart writing and terrific performances by Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, and Conleth Hill as staff of The Observer.
The Observer’s editor Roger Alton (Hill) and reporters Martin Bright (Smith) and Peter Beaumont (Goode) engaged in a vigorous debate over the possibility they were being duped by an anti-war activist attempting to pass off a fake memo as the genuine article. The Observer would be putting their credibility on the line, and the film reveals the inner workings of the newspaper during that difficult – and testy – decision process.
Official Secrets also touches upon Katharine Gun’s legal team led by Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), James Welch (John Heffernan), and Shami Chakrabarti (Indira Varma). They worked incredibly hard to come up with a defense strategy that ultimately factored heavily in the government’s decision about prosecuting Katharine for divulging the classified memo.
The story’s compelling and Hood keeps it crisp and clean. Hood did extensive research and was determined to stick to the actual story rather than taking artistic license in its telling. The result is a powerful, character-driven film that’s relevant, thought-provoking, and engrossing.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 112 minutes
Studio: IFC Films