‘Official Secrets’ is an Iraq war whistleblower drama based on reality

Keira Knightley plays whistleblower Katharine Gun in Official Secrets.
Keira Knightley plays whistleblower Katharine Gun in Official Secrets. IFC Films

Official Secrets

Rated: R
Run-time: 111 minutes

Set in the breezy, carefree days of 2003, when there remained some semblance of faith that the institutions of democracy and the free press could deliver positive outcomes for Western civilization, before everything crumbled into the sea like a free-falling chunk of a swiftly melting glacier, Official Secrets is still painfully, shockingly relevant. This sleek and grimly efficient thriller charts the ordeal of real-life whistleblower Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a rather un-extraordinary, low-level British intelligence worker toiling away in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq who leaked a highly sensitive government document for no other reason than because it bloody well needed to be done.

Though competent as a translator of mostly Mandarin diplomatic communiqués, Gun seems more concerned with office gossip or that morning's pastry selections than in anything that comes across her desk. To her, this stream of clandestine messages is just part of a day's work, until she reads a note that stops her short. The memo is a directive from the NSA's director of "regional targets" requesting MI6's aid in wiretapping certain member nations of the UN Security Council in order to coerce a "yes" vote for the United States' planned invasion of Iraq, regardless of the discovery of Saddam Hussein's presumed arsenal of chemical weapons.

This is an extraordinary and highly unconstitutional request, the dire consequences of which begin to eat away at Gun's newly awakened conscience. In a flash of determination, she makes a copy of the memo, slips it in her handbag, and then gives it to a college friend with ties to the anti-war movement and to her contacts in the press. This noble act proves to be a major violation of the law that shares the film's title, and could land Gun in prison for decades. And worse: her husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish Turk, is suddenly and unfairly facing deportation.

The middle third of the film becomes a triple-headed procedural, with newspapermen (Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans) frantically attempting to confirm the bombshell they've been handed; Ralph Fiennes as the head lawyer preparing Gun's defense; and the whistleblower herself learning firsthand the ugly ends to which her government will go to cover up its dirty work.

Knightley, prone to giving such intense, lip-quivering performances that you're concerned she might be having a seizure, is dependable, but perhaps miscast. Her slight frame and gossamer beauty does make her seem especially vulnerable, but her preference for a swooning, emotional hyperrealism is a bit romantic for the decidedly un-glamourous storytelling. Also, in what may be a cinematic first, the real-life Gun is very blonde, yet she's played onscreen by a brunette.

Director Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) maintains an unwavering level of tension, perhaps to a fault. There is little levity or relief from the progression of events, and while the somber tone is appropriate to the life-and-death subject matter, a bit more cinematic flourish might've helped sell the devastating gravity of the scenario. As it was in real life, Gun and the tireless journalists who worked so hard to spread her story could not stop the gears of war, though the courage of their efforts, of the simple act of giving a damn about a world on fire, seem all the more important now.

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