‘Official Secrets’ Review
Doing the right thing is usually pretty easy. However, a person’s true character is revealed when it’s not so easy. In 2003, doing the right thing became very difficult for Katharine Gun. How difficult? Well, her decision could jeopardize her job. It’s a decision that could get her husband deported. Making the choice could expose two powerful governments and send her to prison for many years. And if that’s not enough risk, how about a decision that could lead to a huge (possibly illegal) war, costing thousands of lives? So you know what Katharine Gun did? She did the right thing.
In Official Secrets, Keira Knightley stars as Katharine Gun. The film opens in 2004 with her facing a British court and the moment of her plea. We then flashback one year to see Katharine working as a staff member of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). She spends her days translating and compiling intelligence for the British government. It’s a job that requires the utmost discretion and the contractual obligation to keep work secrets at work. One day she reads a top-secret memo making it clear that governments were conspiring to manipulate a United Nations vote required to authorize an invasion of Iraq.
Based on the (lengthy titled) book, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion by Martha and Thomas Mitchell, the film is directed by Gavin Hood (the excellent Tsotsi, 2005) who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory and Sara Bernstein. It’s presented as a moral quandary for Katharine. Say nothing and maintain the status quo in her personal and professional life, or speak up and risk everything noted above. We see Katharine’s impulsive decision-making and behavior that would rank her among history’s least likely successful spies. It’s actually her naïveté that guides her to speak up.
The media side is also addressed here, and although some terrific actors are involved, this segment is the film’s slickest and least realistic. Matt Smith plays political reporter Martin Bright and Rhys Ifans plays Ed Volliamy. The two journalists for The Observer worked together to verify the memo leaked by Ms. Gun, and Matthew Goode is Peter Beaumont, the editor who pushed to run the story. Previously, the paper had been an avid supporter of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and took many of their stories directly from information provided by his office. Running the story exposed the paper to scrutiny that it was not accustomed to.
Where the film excels is in exploring Katharine’s personal turmoil. It’s also where it fails us as viewers. As her personal story, the subject matter is a unique and rare look at the wheels of government intelligence. Unfortunately, an inordinate amount of time is spent on the media and reporting, and not enough on what emotional torture the year of waiting must have been for her. Ralph Fiennes plays Ben Emmerson, the lead attorney for Liberty – the legal organization who takes on Katharine’s case. It’s the legal wranglings of this complex case that make for extraordinary drama, and the fallout of her personal choices had the potential for disaster. All of this is covered in a cursory manner when more detail would have added more heft to a fascinating story. This includes her run-ins with an MI5 agent played superbly by Peter Guinness. The Official Secrets Act of 1989 is mentioned about 10 times; we understand pretty quickly that violating this law likely results in treason. Ms. Gun is a hero for exposing illegal government activity, and a more intimate look at her personal turmoil would have provided more suspense and a better connection for the viewer.