Official Secrets, 2019.
Directed by Gavin Hood.
Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, Conleth Hill, MyAnna Buring, Jack Farthing, Katherine Kelly, Adam Bakri, and Tamsin Greig.
The true story of a British whistleblower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
There’s a scintillating fire burning in the belly of Gavin Hood’s latest docudrama, Official Secrets. Its embers and aggression sizzle with intensity as it elevates through the gears; unfolding a devastating saga of political neglect, contempt, and illegality. It isn’t the first – nor likely the last – time we’ll see Hood handle material of this nature, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
Co-written by Hood, alongside Gregory and Sara Bernstein, the story is adapted from Thomas and Marcia Mitchell’s factual memoir, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion. It details the true account a young GCHQ linguist-cum-whistleblower, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), in her heroic quest to deter a thankless, unwarranted war. “Just because you’re the Prime Minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts,” she growls at Tony Blair, front-and-centre of a jittery news reel.
In the immediate run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, Gun and several other GCHQ operatives receive a top-secret NSA memo, exposing a joint UK-USA illegal spying operation against members of the UN; in essence, digging up dirty laundry on smaller, undecided UN Security Council members, in the bid to manipulate their decisions into voting for war. Alarm bells start ringing for Gun, and she struggles with her own inner turmoil about her legal – and moral – position to Great Britain. It is information which puts the country’s citizens in a state of jeopardy.
She bravely and selflessly decides to take the information to the people, and The Observer are the ones to run the story. Martin Bright – played with deft confidence by Matt Smith – is the journalist who researches and pens the scoop; much to the professional risk of his volcanic editor, Roger Alton (Conleth Hill). This, as the title suggests, puts Gun and Bright in a breach of The Official Secrets Act 1989; a crime of treason to Queen and Country.
An arresting and complex narrative is woven thoughtfully into this tight, punchy script. It highlights the uncharted waters of government malfeasance in a digestible and exciting manner. The whip-smart newsroom dialogue provides a much-needed injection of humour, as scribes spit expletive-fuelled bile at each other like some kind of rap battle. There is an energy about The Observer environment; one which ignites with unyielding ferocity when Gun’s memo drops on the doormat. One of the film’s finest, most volatile sequences comes from the simplest of errors: spellcheck.
Unlike Hood’s last entry however – the exhilarating and excruciating 2015 war drama, Eye in the Sky – his latest doesn’t dig quite as deeply. The moral ramifications of characters’ actions in his last film were, at points, unbearable. You really got a sense of the weight and tension in the life-changing, world-altering decision making. With Official Secrets, despite the stakes being extremely high, often it doesn’t it feel as such. There are flashes of heart-pumping tension here, as opposed to a consistent level of anxiety. A sequence in which the government takes a personal shot at Gun by targeting her immigrant husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), in a repulsive move of prejudice is particularly effective.
Where the film is most impressive however, is in the paper trail. Hood lenses the journey from control room to court with finesse and realism; evoking his documentarian flair for factual filmmaking with efficient brushstrokes. It helps too, having a parade of A-list performers at your disposal, who all turn in exemplary work. Knightley is, for my money, one of the most consistent British performers at work today. She tries her hand at everything: all genres, all tones, all character types.
Here she walks the narrow line between selfless and scolding with gusto and panache. Gun goes from frightful to fearless in her quest for justice and knowledge, and yet her moral principals never alter; even when the claws come out and things get personal. What she did for this country cannot be underestimated, and it’s a credit to Knightley’s craft how its immeasurable value is portrayed.
Equally impressive in the ensemble are the aforementioned Smith and Hill, in addition to Rhys Ifans’ snarling Washington reporter, Ed Vulliamy, and Ralph Fiennes. He turns in fantastic work as Ben Emmerson – the Liberty lawyer who agrees to take on Gun’s case – despite the fact that even talking to a lawyer is, in itself, a further breach of The Official Secrets Act. A number of scenes shared between Knightley and Fiennes highlight the cool composure of the film’s script.
Official Secrets is a scathing examination of the Iraq War’s illegalities and wrongdoings. It fittingly arrives in a period of our own political unrest, and consequently feels more timely than ever. Katharine Gun’s story is one that needed to be told, and Hood’s feisty, focussed study certainly does it justice.
Official Secrets screened as the Debate Gala at the 2019 BFI London Festival. It arrives in UK cinemas on 18th October 2019.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★