Published Sep 23, 2019Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, John Doe — all individuals in recent years who acted unlawfully against their government for their country. "All information collected in the name of the public should be made public," as quoted in Gavin Hood's Official Secrets, and whose protagonist believed so wholeheartedly.
If you're not well versed in pre-Iraq politics or were too young to understand or remember, the name "Katharine Gun" would be relatively unknown. Perhaps it's because her leak wasn't a success like the others, but despite that, her story creates a tense political thriller that introduces the audience to a hero who singlehandedly tried to stop an illegal war.
In the film's opening scenes, dressed in a simple blazer, no corset in sight, Keira Knightley, as Gun, stands trial for her breach of the Official Secrets Act of 1989. Flashback one year, and Gun is seen expressing her disgust over PM Tony Blair making up his own facts on live television (politics never changes!).
The Eye in the Sky director's latest feature provides a glimpse at the inner workings of British intelligence, as he follows Gun, a transcriber for the GCHQ (the UK government's communications headquarters). When her department is sent an email from the NSA asking the GCHQ to dig up information to blackmail the smaller UN Security Council members into voting in favour of an Iraq invasion, Official Secrets becomes a fight of conscience as Gun must decide if she will be able to live with the consequences of telling the truth, or keeping secrets from the British people.
Matt Smith and Matthew Goode round out the cast of primary characters as Martin Bright and Peter Beaumont, two journalists for The Observer. After Gun passes off the NSA memo to a friend in the anti-war movement, it's given to Bright. The second half of the film focuses primarily on his and Beaumont's investigation into whether or not the memo is legitimate and details the effects of the public's knowledge therein.
Political thrillers may oftentimes be hard to follow, especially if one is unfamiliar with its subject matter, but Official Secrets is never confusing, nor is it ever uninteresting. Based on the book, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion by Thomas and Marcia Mitchell, Hood, along with Gregory and Sara Bernstein, write a screenplay that questions what governments are still hiding from its people, explores a newspaper's grumbling pro-war belief system, a woman's struggle to accept how big her rashly executing actions became, and how these actions affect her Muslim immigrant husband – in a stirring performance by relative newcomer Adam Bakri.
Official Secrets is surprisingly humorous when appropriate, and welcomes secondary performances by Ralph Fiennes, Indira Varma, and Rhys Ifans. But the woman carrying the narrative also does so in performance, with Knightley delivering an Oscar-worthy performance. Hood succeeds in producing one of the best films of the year, a story of heroism by a woman who had nothing to gain, but everything to lose.