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official secrets review
The story of whistleblower Katharine Gun.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, Jeremy Northam

official secrets poster

Director Gavin Hood's Official Secrets blends two sub-genres of the political thriller. There's the journalistic investigation movie, as best exemplified by Alan J Pakula's All the President's Men, which detailed the Washington Post's Watergate exposé; and the whistleblower movie, best represented by Mike Nichols' Silkwood, which told the story of Karen Silkwood, a union activist who suspiciously died in a car accident while investigating dodgy goings on at the nuclear plant where she worked. Hood's film isn't in the same league as either of the aforementioned films, but thanks to riveting subject matter, an impressive ensemble of British acting talent, and Hood's competent if conservative direction, it's a compelling watch.

official secrets review

Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun (Kiera Knightley), who in 2003 finds herself employed as a translator at Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). In the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, the US is now desperate to invade Iraq, and will employ any methods necessary to get its way. Katharine comes across an email from America's National Security Agency (NSA) requesting British assistance in digging up dirt that might be used against those United Nations Security Council members who oppose a potential war.

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Katharine secretly prints out the memo and gives it to an activist friend of hers (Tamsin Greig), who forwards it to anti-war journalist Yvonne Ridley (Hattie Morahan), who in turn passes it on to Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith). After much debate with his editor (Conleth Hill), Bright is allowed to publish the story, which initially causes a sensation. However, the Observer is brought into disrepute when right-wing American website The Drudge Report points out a major flaw in its text. As an investigation begins at GCHQ to rat out the whistleblower, it seems Katharine may have risked her job and her freedom for nothing.

official secrets review

As I previously pointed out, Official Secrets joins two very established sub-genres, and as such, there's inevitably a feeling that you've seen many of its plot beats before. The screenplay - by Hood and Gregory and Sarah Bernstein - is all too aware of this, even pointing out its adherence to established tropes when Bright mocks the idea of meeting Ridley in an underground car park, à la Bob Woodward's meetings with informant 'Deep Throat' in All the President's Men. Some clichés are unavoidable however, as Ridley points out that said location is the only place in London where a cellphone signal is blocked.

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Official Secrets is at its best when it accepts that its covering storytelling ground that's far from fresh. The strongest scenes are those that explore the journalistic side of the story, with foul-mouthed journalists and editors bickering in their offices like the embittered real estate agents of Glengarry Glen Ross. Smith is particularly excellent, portraying a mix of idealism and ambition as Bright, and it's a shame the movie doesn't spend more time with him. While it's mostly a realistic enough portrayal of journalism, some moments stand out as poorly researched, like one journalist (Rhys Ifans doing his best David Warner in The Omen impression) making the amateur mistake of calling the NSA from his apartment phone.

official secrets review

The bulk of the movie focusses on the toll the whole affair takes on Katharine (whose surname, Gun, is so on-the-nose it's hard to believe it's actually her real name). In a rare role in which she ditches petticoats for jumper and jeans, Knightley is at the top of her game, particularly strong in the scenes that require her to remain calm and hold her tongue in the face of bureaucratic prodding. Making things even more complicated for Katharine is the fact that she's married to a Muslim immigrant - Yasar (Adam Bakri), who as a Kurdish Turk, supports the ousting of Saddam Hussein - who now finds his status in Britain threatened by his wife's actions. Too often, depictions of real life characters unnecessarily shoehorn in spouses or partners as a sounding board for the protagonist, a lazy way of getting a message across to the audience, so it's refreshing to see a significant other who actually plays a significant role in the drama.

Movies like Official Secrets should really have come out a decade ago, before the US began disrupting Libya, Syria and Yemen in similar fashion to Iraq and Afghanistan. But with Venezuela, Iran, and God forbid, Russia, currently in America's trigger sights, Hood's film is all too prescient.

Official Secrets is on Netflix UK/ROI now.