True story of British whistleblower Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) who, working for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), leaked a document to the press about an illegal NSA operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Official Secrets is set in a time and is about an event that really didn’t happen very long ago, but a lot can change in the political, media, and intelligence landscape in fifteen years. It’s hard to think whether someone could do a similar thing to what Katharine Gun did, today. They definitely couldn’t do it the way she did; copying files to floppy discs and printing off one piece of paper of damning evidence, and then just walking out of her office with it in her pocket. Fifteen years ago, generally speaking, the public had faith in its government and politicians would hate to be caught out in a lie. When you compare that to today where politicians lambast the press for reporting the truth, and some politicians can’t go one day without lying and feeling no remorse for it, it’s startling how much has changed in a relatively short space of time.
Keira Knightley gives a strong performance as Katharine Gun, easily showing her inner turmoil as events spiral out of her control when the journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith) at the Observer publishes the document in full on the front page of the newspaper. But as Katherine is forced to go toe to toe with the police, politicians, and lawyers, Knightley commands every scene she’s in and Katherine’s steely determination shines through.
Official Secrets finds the wonderful balance between political thriller and real-person drama. It builds on the suspense as Katherine and her husband Yasar (played by Adam Bakri who does a fine job with what he’s given but Yasar isn’t much of a fleshed-out character) are put in jeopardy by her actions, and as the people around her try and find out the truth. It also knows how to give you some rest bite from the tension with some very funny moments. It’s the arguments in the newsroom, it’s the lawyers debating the case, it’s the little human moments that shine through and make you laugh and smile as not only the threat of prison looms over Katherine, the threat of war and idea of a government that cannot be trusted.
It is fascinating watching Official Secrets with the benefit of hindsight. It’s maddening yet believable that newspapers would take what their politicians and government said at face value and because they had those connections in Downing Street, and they didn’t want to lose them. There were those who didn’t believe the PR machine. Foreign Correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) goes on about his retired CIA contact who is hearing all kinds of disgruntled chatter from analysts that contradict what the White House is saying, but his editor won’t publish his 3,000-word reports about it. Vulliamy isn’t the only reporter who is against the war and doesn’t believe what Bush and Blair are saying, but with so much stacked against them, it’s hard to make a dent.
Official Secrets is well-made in every aspect with a talented cast giving solid performances. It ends rather abruptly and with a focus on characters you wouldn’t expect, but besides that, it’s a compelling drama that’s worth seeing and talking about.
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Written by: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood
Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Katherine Kelly, Ralph Fiennes, Indira Varma, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans