Is it prescience or plain luck that a drama about Katharine Gun, who blew the lid on America’s shady spy tactics ahead of the Iraq War, is being released within weeks of a whistleblower kickstarting the impeachment process against Donald Trump? The question of who deserves to be made a hero in today’s world may be unavoidably contentious, but where we decide to turn the camera says more about our values as a society than we’d ever like to admit. And so, if a film could be commended on its choice of subject matter alone, Official Secrets would be in the running for top prize.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Gun (played here by Keira Knightley) was a GCHQ translator back in 2003, contributing to Britain’s surveillance operations by listening in on phone calls and taking note of any suspicious activity. But then came a classified memo from the NSA, asking Gun and her colleagues to dig up dirt on several United Nations delegates, with the hope the US could blackmail them ahead of a crucial vote on the resolution to invade Iraq. When Gun was asked why she leaked the memo to the press, she famously responded: “I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.”
Unfortunately, director Gavin Hood’s film (alongside the script he co-wrote with Gregory and Sara Bernstein) isn’t as inspiring as it should be. He’s no stranger to political thrillers, having already tackled anti-terror operations in 2007’s Rendition and drone bombing in 2015’s Eye in the Sky. Yet, while he can wring plenty of drama out of the messy ethics at play, his work routinely feels simplistic in its approach. He doesn’t, for instance, adequately confront the way Official Secrets lives under the shadow of our own hindsight. Whatever victories Gun might have achieved, we know she failed to prevent the Iraq War and the hundreds of thousands of deaths it caused. But to confront this would be to face up to the possibility that we’re powerless against those in charge.
The film bulks out its cast with strong supporting turns by recognisable faces. Matt Smith adds a wiry energy to Martin Bright, The Observer journalist who pushed to have Gun’s memo published, while Ralph Fiennes is pleasantly stoic as human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson, who defended Gun after the British government tried to charge her with treason. It’s Knightley, however, who finds a real sense of soul in the material. The second her letter to the press drops into the mailbox – when it’s all officially out of her hands – a wave of nausea spreads across her face like a raging fire. Her jaw clenches and her body tenses. The actor’s smart not to play Gun as the noble martyr, but merely as an ordinary, frustrated citizen who makes a split-second decision, moved by a sudden stirring of her conscience. Now, isn’t that someone we can all look up to?
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