DIRECTED BY: GAVIN HOOD /2019
As we know from the recent past, the pretext for war in Iraq, in 2003, was due to the threat of “WMD’s” (Weapons of Mass Destruction) being possessed by Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. In a post-9/11 world, the United States was determined to keep nations like these from using these weapons, or selling these weapons to groups who would use these type of weapons, against us. Following the war, the cache of weapons were not found. This of course had political repercussions here in the United States, but many Americans might not understand what was happening across the pond in Great Britain, and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support of the U.S. position, in the run-up to the war as Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations to make the case for going to war. The movie Official Secrets is a film about this very subject.
Keira Knightley is Katharine Gun, a woman who works for British Intelligence, primarily using her language skills to interpret communications in the foreign languages she speaks. She is not a field agent, but she is a spy. A high priority request comes across her computer giving orders to effectively spy on nations who are members of the U.N. Security Council so that the Intel gained can be used to assist the NSA’s joint US-UK operation intending to force these nations to support the proposed war in Iraq. Katharine is torn between her loyalty to her country through her service in her agency, and the moral imperative that she expose the contents of the memo so that British soldiers aren’t sent to die based on political blackmail based on the Intel her agency would be sending to cooperate with the orders.
Katherine eventually becomes a whistle-blower by giving a copy of the letter to a friend who passes it on to a journalist with The Observer. When she is outed as the source of the leak for the memo, she is charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. The film documents her attempt to defend herself against the charges, which paints her as being guilty of treason against her country, despite not being able to mount a defense as any testimony she would need to give would cause her to violate The Official Secrets Act further.
While we know from history that the U.S. invaded Iraq, even without the Security Council vote, this film deals more with the political fallout that resulted. Official Secrets champions the woman who exposed corruption in order to protect the lives of her country’s soldiers, something very much in line with her position at the British Intelligence Agency she works at.
In an age where the lines between journalism, media, and entertainment are being blurred, and stories that don’t fit our particular personal narrative are dismissed as “fake news”, this film seeks to shine a light on the importance of true journalism (following and verifying the facts, wherever they may lead), and the importance of providing legal protections to those individuals brave enough to expose corruption amidst the very governments that are meant to represent well the constituents they serve.
Knightley does a fine job in this role and the supporting cast, which includes Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, and Rhys Ifans, is very strong. Director Gavin Hood ably handles the political pressures and cover-ups that come crashing in on Katherine, creating a compelling story filled with tension as to Katherine’s legal fate. Having previously directed Eye in the Sky, which dealt with the blurring lines of moral ambiguity as it relates to issues within the global war on terror, Gavin Hood continues to refine his ability to navigate these types of morality tales.
These last two efforts by Hood more than make up for his previous big-budget efforts of Ender’s Game, and the disastrous film that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Hood is much better at these more personal films that ask big questions than he was at handling CGI-laden spectacles. He may have been derided the most for X-Men, but since Deadpool fixed it all in the new timeline, Hood has been freed to make much more compelling fare like Official Secrets. We are all the better for it.
Official Secrets is meant to be a small film, and here in the United States it will be hampered by those who will dismiss it based on their differing political opinions about the war in Iraq. It may also suffer from those who won’t fully understand the British legal system in regards to the charges Katherine Gun is facing. Even if some are likely to dismiss it for these reasons, everyone should understand the importance of a fully functioning press that exposes the lies and corruption in our agencies, and by our leaders and that seeks the truth to hold governments accountable for their actions. Audiences should also be able to connect with the idea of the need to protect individuals legally when those individuals bravely stand against the systems and structures of power who are acting corruptly. Official Secrets is a compelling story that tells a fascinating true-story, but is also a film that is relevant for us in our time, some 16 years later.