Movie Review Monday: Official Secrets
Our weekend was full of new movies, and this week we’re choosing to focus on one of the smaller releases. Official Secrets premiered at Sundance earlier this year and follows the true story of British whistleblower Katharine Gun. The film was directed by Gavin Hood and written by Hood, Gregory Bernstein, and Sara Bernstein. It stars Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun, and Matt Smith portrays journalist Martin Bright. The movie’s cast also includes Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, Ralph Fiennes, and Conleth Hill.
The movie begins with footage from 2003 of Tony Blair and George W. Bush discussing the situation in Iraq. Katharine Gun watches this footage at home and complains to her husband about their rationale. From there, Katharine goes to work at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), where she translates conversations from Mandarin to English. One day at work Katharine and her co-workers receive a forwarded memo from an NSA official asking for help in collecting compromising information on select United Nations Security Council members that will be voting on a resolution about invading Iraq. Katharine is unsettled by the request, and after considering the implications of the memo, she reaches out to an old friend. Her friend agrees to pass a copy of the memo to a journalist contact, so Katharine covertly sneaks a copy out of the building. A month passes with no word as journalists investigate the validity of the memo. However, when the memo is finally released in the paper, Katharine finds her whole building under scrutiny and must decide whether to confess her involvement and accept the consequences that might follow.
Admittedly, I had never heard of Katharine Gun before this film, but I found the trailer incredibly intriguing. After watching it, I understand how I could have missed Gun’s actions between the reactions of the American press and the fact that I was just beginning high school at the time. That being said, the film does an excellent job of explaining the state of the world at the time and the general attitudes about invading Iraq. It takes the time to thoroughly explain the content and consequences of the memo without making the exposition laborious. It also does a great job of exploring both the morality and legality of what Katharine did. It’s genuinely a moving, thought-provoking film that provides a lot to contemplate.
While the story itself is enticing, the film is made all the better by the cast that carries it. Keira Knightley is unsurprisingly brilliant as this principled but conflicted character. She gives an emotional performance that perfectly captures the strain of this decision and the threats her character faces in light of it. Ralph Fiennes also stands out as Ben Emmerson and excels as this considerate, reassuring presence in Katharine’s story. Matt Smith was brilliant as journalist Martin Bright, and he grounds the film with his investigation and differing viewpoint from several employees at The Observer. In fact, the interactions between the staff at The Observer were some of my favorite sequences of the film as they debate the validity of the memo and the potential consequences of printing such a piece in light of the Official Secrets Act. These sequences were often clever and witty but also hard hitting with the staff embracing the tension between wanting access to Downing Street but also desiring to print stories people need to know.
At the end of the day, Official Secrets is an impressive docudrama that sheds some light on events from recent history. It sparks a lot of discussion about what the public should or shouldn’t know about the government and its activities. It also highlights the responsibilities of the press and the power of the truth. Its excellent cast and commentary provide for a moving narrative and compelling story about one person who tried to make a difference. I highly enjoyed Official Secrets, and I would recommend this well-written film for a theater showing at any time.
Mollie is a film enthusiast, aspiring writer/screenwriter, and a lover of all things Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. She is the co-founder of The Digital Shore (@thedigitalshore) and Above The Line (@atl_movies). You can follow her many adventures through Twitter and Instagram at @mcbeach.