Synopsis: The true story of a British whistleblower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Stars: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, Adam Barki, Conleth Hill, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans
Director: Gavin Hood
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: You can almost set your watch by it. Every year, the moment the summer movie season has made its last gasps (and with Brittany Runs a Marathon and Ready or Not sneaking in, what a fulfilling final breath it was!), the more serious-minded films are staging a not so stealth attack at cinemas. It’s time to set aside the imaginary heroes that vanquish villains in other galaxies in favor of stories of true to life tales of champions of a different nature. Come hell or high water, you will be exposed to one or more of these films in the next several months and you can only cross your fingers and hope it’s as entertaining as it is informative.
The first movie to step up to the plate is Official Secrets, a long gestating project that at one time was set to star such A-listers as Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, and Martin Freeman. When it failed to materialize, the work bounced around until it was picked up by Academy Award winning director Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) and attracted another tantalizing cast of UK favorites. Taking a familiar page out of the Spotlight handbook and exploring a cover-up by that reaches deep within the government, Official Secrets has everything the equation of a pot-boiler needs to succeed. What it doesn’t have is any spark to get a fire going.
In 2003, Katharine Gunn was a translator working at a British intelligence agency who is copied on an e-mail from the chief of staff of the NSA. The memo sought to identify support for the illegal surveillance on six nations within the UN that could tip the scale in favor of war with Iraq. Though information Gunn, her colleagues, and her bosses had about Iraq clearly indicated the reasons for the proposed war were flawed, there was little Gunn could do to stop a determined train that had already left the station. However, she could expose the lie…but to do so would cost her everything. Leaking the memo to the press, Gunn was eventually arrested and charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act.
While Gunn’s story is compelling and her bravery with sticking her neck out is to be applauded, I’m not entirely sure a feature film was necessary. The screenplay from Gregory and Sara Bernstein doesn’t exactly make the case either, with the movie often devolving into a fairly standard David v. Goliath tale. The only interesting wrinkle in this courtroom drama (that rarely sees the inside of a hall of justice) is that Gunn’s hands were often tied in her defense, since she would run the risk of violating the Official Secrets Act every time she discussed the case with her lawyer. On the other side of the coin, Hood shifts focus to the offices of The Observer, the publication that got a hold of the leaked document and printed it as a cover story. The characters at The Observer are arch, like a UK version of The Paper, and while the actors often acquit themselves nicely you can’t get around the feeling you can predict the next line of dialogue at any point.
With the screenplay lacking in dramatic heft, it’s up to the actors to do the heavy lifting and that’s where the movie finds a few sparks. As Gunn, Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method) clocks a solid performance, shedding her normal period attire for a modern-ish drama where she can show a range that sits in a comfortable spot. It’s not a huge performance, it’s not a muted one…it’s evenly pitched and effectively grounds the movie in some realism even as it starts to drown in cliché. I also liked Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys) playing Martin Bright, The Observer reporter that breaks the story and almost gets swallowed up by the wave of backlash it incurs. Continuing his streak of showing fondness for quirky, rumpled roles, Ralph Finnes (Skyfall) turns up as Gunn’s human rights attorney that goes to bat for her.
Less successful is Adam Barki, MyAnna Buring, and Rhys Ifans (The Five-Year Engagement) in underwritten roles that eventually become distractions. Barki, in particular, has little chemistry with Knightley so their husband and wife characters never seem to gel. When the movie implores us to care about this relationship, it becomes a big ask. With Buring (Kill List) as, actually, I never quite understood what her relationship was to Knightlely, only that she was part of the group that helped get the memo out in the open. I’ve been intrigued by Buring in her previous roles and wish she had been given more to do. And Ifans, what can I say? The Blustery Reporter with Conviction has been done countless times in better movies, though I did respond positively anytime we spent time in the offices of The Observer.
What’s good about Official Secrets when all is said and done is that it serves as a reminder that governments are not above the law or beyond reproach. Some may look at what Gunn did as treasonous but in this current time of frustration with the truth being hidden behind a smoke screen of lies, there’s a particular thrill in seeing someone rebel against it all. I’d have liked it if Hood had sharpened the movie more – it was never going to be a political mystery thriller but there was room to turn the volume up a bit.