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Official Secrets (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

Official Secrets


Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, Conleth Hill, Tamsin Greig, Hattie Morahan, Ray Panthaki, Angus Wright, Chris Larkin, Monica Dolan, Jack Farthing, Clive Francis, John Heffernan, Kenneth Cranham, Darrell D’Silva, Janie Dee, MyAnna Buring, Chris Reilly, Shaun Dooley, Peter Guinness, Hanako Footman and Jeremy Northam.

Screenplay by Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein and Gavin Hood.

Directed by Gavin Hood.

Distributed by IFC Films. 112 minutes. Rated R.

With the world mired in the crimes and misdemeanors of the Trump era, we have all had the tendency to slightly romanticize the administration of George W. Bush. You remember – weapons of mass destruction, “You’re doing a great job Brownie,” mission accomplished, “Fool me twice and I won’t be fooled again,” the Plame affair, Abu Ghraib, My Pet Goat, the axis of evil. Just because it was a little less corrupt doesn’t make it right.

Official Secrets takes a look at one of the bigger conspiracies of the era – and it looks at it from the point of view of one of our allies – England. Specifically, it tells the true story of a low-level British bureaucrat who became a whistleblower when she learned that the British government and Prime Minister Tony Blair was conspiring to help the States sell the idea of a war in Iraq by supporting manufactured (and false) evidence that Iraq was creating WMDs.

That low-level bureaucrat was Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), basically a glorified data entry employee at Britain’s secretive Government Communications Headquarters who was shocked by an email telling all employees of the government to manufacture evidence to cooperate with the US claims. Gun – who was married to a Muslim man – found her sensibilities offended by this. Not because of her husband, but just because she knew innocent people would be senselessly killed in an unnecessary war.

Gun was not an activist – as political as she got was heckling Blair on television – until she recognized the potential consequences of this note. In a crisis of conscience, she gave a copy of the email to a friend who was part of a group protesting the government. Gun had second thoughts and tried to undo the leak, and for a while she felt that the info would not get out. However, a few weeks later after some journalistic checking, the story exploded, putting Gun’s life and freedom in jeopardy.

She was charged under the Official Secrets Act, essentially being accused of treason. She was facing years in prison and the deportation of her husband. She was put in the middle of a show trial in which she was displayed in a glass booth as if she was a massive threat to the country.

All she had on her side were her beliefs and some idealistic lawyers who vowed to fight with her.

Official Secrets has the feel of one of those classic muckraking films of the 70s – like All the Presidents Men or Network or Three Days of the Condor – and it makes for surprisingly compelling viewing. In looking back at a scandal that has been nearly forgotten due to the sheer multitude of scandals which have come in its wake, Official Secrets helps us to look at some of the past transgressions that have led us to where we are.

The one slight complaint I may have is the portrayal of Gun seems a little undercooked. That is not a shot at Knightley, who does a fine job in the role. However, the screenplay does not really dig deep into the motivations that led to the woman going against a lifetime of non-protest – she does not even seem to be a particular liberal – and put her life and freedom in danger on what seems almost like a whim. Perhaps it was simply a belief in doing the right thing, but I wish the film tried harder to explain how she got to this place.

However, that is just a slight complaint in what is otherwise a terrific film.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: August 30, 2019.

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