IT IS A testament to the brilliance of the writing (Gregory and Sara Bernstein based on the book by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell), the directing (Gavin Hood) and the acting (Keira Knightley) in this wonderfully exciting movie that an old, known story can retain so much of its tension and drama. The story is that of one of the early whistleblowers, Katherine Gun (back in those days when we were all shocked that governments would manufacture evidence and simply lie to its people).
Katherine worked as an eavesdropper for GCHQ (The British Intelligence agency), and is startled to open up a memo sent to her and her colleagues, requesting them, on behalf of the (US) NSA, to spy on and blackmail a number of UN Security Council countries. The intent was to strong-arm them into approving the US/UK’s intemperate dash into Iraq.
Through her covert work, she is well aware that there is no evidence of WMD’s in Iraq and is shocked at the ease with which Blair and Bush simply lie to the public about anything that can hinder their thirst for war. While the public marches, she rails privately at the TV. But when the memo is sent to her – which will now make her complicit in the lies – her conscience gets the better of her instinct for self preservation and she reluctantly sends the memo to The Observer via a friend.
And then all life turns upside down.
The movie is energized by a central question: What sort of person risks all – her marriage, her freedom, her good name – for a matter of principle? In order to answer this, Official Secrets is essentially a study in character; and as such the entire enterprise rests upon Ms. Knightley’s slender shoulders. She (who gets better with every movie) carries it off with incredible skill. She’s entirely believable (physically dressed down to appear almost like a ‘normal’ person and less startlingly attractive) as the steely, fragile, determined, scared, confident, youthful whistleblower. She has at her heart an unshakable moral core; a clear perspective of the line that separates right from wrong, no matter if the wrong is premised as the “wisdom of the government”.
There’s a telling exchange toward the end of the movie when Ms. Gun reassures one of her colleagues at GCHQ. “You did nothing wrong” she tells her. The colleague replies, “But I also did nothing right”. And therein lies the difference between the likes of Katherine Gun and most of us. We are mainly happy to do nothing wrong. Her principled need was to do something right.
The movie is also a tender love story. Katherine is not some abstract avenging angel of truth. She’s a wife and a lover and a friend…a real person, whose life is upended not merely for herself but also for her Kurdish husband (Adam Bakri): an easy target for a cornered government. Her unflinching battle for her husband’s human rights are paralleled with her own battle for the truth to stop a war based on lies. The suggestion is that the fight for love and the fight for truth perhaps stem from the same root.
Her ‘support” team (A who’s who of British drama) are equally compelling. Ralph Fiennes is Ben Emmerson, her lead lawyer from Liberty, the human rights organization regularly rubbished by the right wing tabloids. Like her, he’s a principled person…a dour, unsmiling, courageous soul whose clever defense strategy turns Katherine’s small revelation of government duplicity into the massive cover up that built the case for war.
Matt Smith (better recognized as Phillip from The Crown…or Dr. Who) is the journalist Martin Bright who broke the story. He’s perhaps the weakest character, easily outshone by Rhys Ifans as Ed Vulliamy, his counterpart based in the US: a profane, unkempt, extrovert wild-man.
And herein lies the showdown of the movie: two rotten leaders surrounded by a series of shadowy, duplicitous government ‘hench-men’ (Scotland Yard, the DPP, NSA and various thuggish ‘tails’) happy with their amoral cover of “just following orders” v Liberty as the strong arm of the law, the Fifth Estate (a truth seeking press) and of course the truth itself. Politics at its most corrupt v Principle at its most profound.
There’s no doubt that the timing of the movie’s release is strategically clear. As always the past illuminates the present. Blair and Bush (the latter shockingly being rehabilitated as a nice guy painter holding hands with Ellen De Generis) may be the centre of this story. But hovering in the background is the shadow of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, those other persons of moral outrage and courage whose fates were less fortunate than that of Katherine’s.
The other shadow is the larger more dangerous one cast by the likes of Trump and Johnson, two equally morally bankrupt leaders who, supported by an army of self-seeking lackeys and a gullible electorate no longer feel it even necessary to hide their lies.
Official Secrets masks its outrage intelligently. It’s (mainly) never preachy. It allows its characters and the truth of the story to illuminate the morality of its tale. It makes it all for must-see, compelling viewing.
Officially, that’s no secret
OFFICIAL SECRETS. Dir: Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky, X-Men Origins: Wolverine); With: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode (A Discovery of Witches), Matt Smith, Ralf Feinnes, Rhys Ifans, Monica Dolan (W1A), Adam Bakri Writers: Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood (Enders Game). Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister (Johnny English Strikes Again). Production Design: Simon Rogers (Doctor Foster)