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Sundance Film Review: ‘Official Secrets’

Keira Knightley battles British intelligence in a staid but ennobling tale of a whistleblower who tried to prevent the Iraq War

Keira Knightley appears in Official Secrets
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As Hollywood re-litigates Dick Cheney’s influence on the launch of the Iraq War with “Vice,” here’s Gavin Hood’s addendum from across the Atlantic about a forgotten story that could have prevented the disaster. “Official Secrets” traces the 2004 criminal trial of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a 28-year-old Mandarin translator for Britain’s secretive Government Communications Headquarters, aka GCHQ, who was arrested for leaking a memo from the United States’ National Security Agency requesting U.K. intelligence to spy on five UN Security Council members — “Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea” — so the Bush Administration could pressure them into voting for a UN mandate that would justify the war against Saddam Hussein.

Before the memo hit her inbox, Gun was already the kind of girl who relaxed by heckling Tony Blair on TV when he prattled on about the search for Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. “Just because you’re Prime Minster, it doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts!” she hoots. That kind of armchair dissent is all the action she personally intended to take, but after reading explosive evidence that the GCHQ was taking illegal orders from Washington, Gun decided her loyalty wasn’t to the government, but to the people — including the 30 million civilians of Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, Gun was charged under the Official Secrets Act, which is, essentially, treason. “I am not trying to overthrow my government,” she insists. Still, at her trial, Gun stood in a caged box as though she was Osama Bin Laden. In a surprising move, the government tightened the pressure by attempting to deport her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee from Turkey who came to England seeking asylum. Yasar loves his wife, but can’t understand why she’d risk both of their freedoms for an ethical ideal. “You’ve never seen war!” he protests. Meanwhile, Yasar agrees to downplay his existence, fearing that if people knew about Gun’s brown-skinned husband, she’d lose public support.

Gun’s story brushes past a dozen currently relevant topics from fake news to racial profiling. Gun’s in the miserable position of knowing just enough about MI6’s spying techniques that she’s afraid of the consequences of coming forward. Yet, except for a silly stretch when Gun slinks to the mailbox clutching her confidential memo, sealed in a pink envelope, jumping out of her skin at every noise, Hood doesn’t goose the script with extra drama. Instead, Hood (whose 2007 film “Rendition” shares the same righteous indignation) clearly enjoys exposing institutional rot, and challenging the idea that just doing one’s job is an ethical excuse. And because “Official Secrets” is set in England, the drama is genteel. A screaming match at the offices of the Observer, who can’t decide whether to print the memo, ends with someone offering a calming cup of tea.

Iraq was an unpopular war even before it began. The worldwide anti-invasion protests set a record until the first Women’s March. Hood incorporates wincing flashbacks of the demonstrations on vintage (pre-flatscreen) TVs, as well as archival footage of Blair and George W. Bush assuring their country that war was the best course of action.

We know this part of the story. Yet, “Official Secrets” doesn’t seem to intimately know Gun. It’s a dry and honorable retelling of events that exists mostly to remind us who she was, and why any potential whistleblowers out there should honor her example. As solid as Knightley is, she’s only able to play Gun as stubborn, conscience-stricken, and almost childishly simple in defining right from wrong. While the trial marches forward, she gets less and less attention as Hood re-focuses the story on her defense lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who comes up with the brilliant idea of putting the Iraq War itself on trial to justify Gun’s actions.

To fill time, Hood also hangs out with the Observer journalists who attempt to corroborate and print the memo, particularly obsessive D.C. correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) and Martin Bright (“Doctor Who” star Matt Smith), who published the original scoop and seems to have given a livelier recounting of the events. Upon meeting a source in an underground parking lot, he quips, “It’s a little Deep Throat, don’t’ you think?” The most intense scene in the film isn’t about guns or warfare — it’s about spellcheck.

The crux of Gun’s struggle is that she risked everything to tell the truth, and the war happened anyway. Ultimately, her personal story was neither uplifting, nor tragic, which means the film surrounding her doesn’t hurtle toward a satisfying arc. “Official Secrets” is a footnote in a messy, futile, and foolish war, whose mistakes are still being revealed over a decade and a half later. Gun didn’t change history. But here, she just has one regret: “I am only sorry that it failed.”

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Sundance Film Review: ‘Official Secrets’

<p class="western">Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 28, 2019. Running time: 112 MIN.</p>

  • Production: <p class="western">An Entertainment One presentation, in association with GS Media, Screen Yorkshire, a Classified Films, Clear Pictures Entertainment production, in association with Silver Reel. (Int'l sales: Sierra/Affinity, Los Angeles.) Producers: Ged Doherty, Elizabeth Fowler, Melissa Shiyu Zuo. Co-producers: Jennifer Fowler, Todd M. Johnson, Neil Leibman, Sarada McDermott, J. Mace Meeks, Paula Graybill Smith. Executive producers: Even Berntsen, Mark Gordon, Matt Jackson, Sara Smith, Gavin Hood, Claudia Bluemhuber, Anne Sheehan, Hugo Heppell.</p>
  • Crew: <p class="western">Director: Gavin Hood. Screenwriters: Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein, Hood. Camera (color): Florian Hoffmeister. Editor: Megan Gill. Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian.</p>
  • With: <p class="western">Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Ralph Fiennes.</p>
  • Music By: