Most cinematic eras have their overuse of dramatic varnish in historical retellings as a means of painted shine for grabbing attention and producing supposedly heightened value. This writer will always contend that if a chosen story needs too much of that glitz, where it cannot compel or entertain with its own facts, it should not be made into a movie in the first place. Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets gives righteous treatment to such a worthy story and builds a stoic thriller by layering its merits with an eye for accuracy.
Clear eyes in three prongs (personal, journalistic, and legal) are just what this movie is built on. Official Secrets begins with its ending in February of 2004. Its central historical figure, Katharine Gun, played by Kiera Knightley, is standing in court awaiting the decision of “guilty” or “not guilty.” We, the audience, do not yet fully know the charge against her, but the tension of the room is not heavy enough to lower this woman’s chin in despair. That says worlds about the heroism of the woman and the powerful truths within the movie.
Almost exactly a year before this moment, Katharine Gun was working for Government Communications Headquarters, abbreviated as the acronym GCHQ. The agency and its multilingual techs specialize in deciphering and logging intercepted international communications of interest. It is dirty work on headphones and keyboards.
On January 31, 2003, Gun landed a whopper from the United States. A chief of staff of a “regional targets” division of the National Security Agency named “Frank Koza” wrote an email to the U.K. brass requesting aid in a secret and illegal operation to surveil the United Nations offices of six lower nations. The goal was to dig up political and personal blackmail material to use, if necessary, to force votes of agreement from those countries for a future U.N. resolution to authorize an invasion of Iraq led by America and Britain.
To multisensory effect, moving subtitles and voiceover recitation in the film make the hushed communication on print and screen come alive with stirring outrage at this blatant effort to fix a crucial vote. Gun herself, a resolute subject of a nation split on supporting the potential war and skewing negative in a hurry against Tony Blair’s lockstep stances with President George W. Bush, takes all of the incendiary material she sees and reads at work and throws the gasoline of TV news on top of it. Frenzy arrives with fear and vehement disagreement. Katharine brings the email to a former colleague with connections to journalists.
From there, Official Secrets shifts into a journalism film with polished reporter Martin Bright (Doctor Who favorite Matt Smith) willing to print the sensitive findings and leading the charge to investigate the NSA email further for London’s Sunday newspaper The Observer. The more Bright and his fellow virtuous colleagues (led by Matthew Goode’s war correspondent and Rhys Ifans’ old dog investigator) dug, the more legitimately the claims aligned, leading to a cover story challenging the publication’s own pro-Blair reputation.
Remember the flimsy sabre-rattling scenarios that began the interminable War on Terror that still lingers today. Bad intel led to forced action. Poor or manufactured United States reports insisted that Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq housed weapons of mass destruction and harbored the militaristic intent to use them. That was the selling point for the UN vote, and the world bought it. Knowing what we know now over 15 years later after empty inspections is all for naught, but imagine discovering and being able to prove these illegal acts before a boot ever hits the ground and over 260,000 people would lose their lives in Iraq.
The headlines spotlighting suspicions of potential improprieties did not work. The invasion ensued and Katharine Gun, feeling like a failure, was charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. The pressing need for legal representation brings forth the third prong of the film. Ralph Fiennes co-stars as the wickedly intelligent and stalwart humanitarian lawyer Ben Emmerson, the man we see side-by-side defending Gun up to the dangling moment of the verdict that opened the film.
The law in question that titles the film has 16 sections describing the duties, powers, restrictions, and provisions sworn to those who work in intelligence services in the United Kingdom. The debate at the center was whether Gun’s public disclosure was an act to prevent imminent loss of life or something more personally retaliatory or traitorous. One pillar forms that security is a reason for censorship, not embarrassment, yet should all collected information be made public with the caveat of “when?” Positions must be taken and validated with or without strong arms and moral majorities.
Registering steadily without high theatrics, the suspense of Official Secrets comes from small atmosphere and a stellar lead performance. The keystrokes, mouse clicks, and whirr of printers loading paper raise the nerves enough. The excellent uses of archival news conferences and television footage of the era act as connective tissue between the dramatized and the real events and tumultuous stakes that played out before our eyes.
When the supportive legal and press figures of Official Secrets compliment that it still mattered that efforts were made despite the war still commencing, they laud and celebrate the bravery of Katharine Gun. Keira Knightley, moving her penchant for period guard to something that actually takes place this century, personifies that high character quite well. This is a mature part for the 34-year-old actress exuding more furrows in her brow and darkness beneath eyes than her usual fashion model core.
Knightley’s work makes Official Secrets and its restrained tightness a measure of hero respect, not blatant hero worship. Straightforward was exactly the necessary bearing. Veering would bend something not intended to bend. Still, for a movie to handily combine and then reasonably balance the inner workings and social commentaries across spy, legal, and news narrative arenas and tones is an impressive filmmaking feat. The docudrama is slick and solid in this fashion, a second victory in this discipline for director Gavin Hood after 2015’s Eye in the Sky. Greater in message than that drone warfare thriller, Official Secrets and its presented history is supremely appropriate and consequential to share to invited learners and viewers.