As irony would have it, the day this review is published marks the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. This was the pretext the George W. Bush administration claimed for launching the U.S. war on Iraq—a pretext that soon proved to be entirely erroneous.
The dogged U.S. insistence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that put lives at risk was the only tenuous thread by which the invasion of Iraq might be legitimized on the world stage. Of course, no WMDs were ever discovered, but by then, one of the most devastating and entirely illegal wars in which U.S. troops (among many others) have ever bled and died was well underway.
All of which provides background for Official Secrets. There’s nothing slick or flashy about Gavin Hood’s tightly constructed and efficient suspense drama. Less a conventional thriller than what you might call an investigative procedural, it zeroes in on a few intrepid individuals facing tough moral choices when they begin to uncover the campaign of misinformation and manipulation the U.S. is using to sell the war.
The movie tells the story of Katharine Gun, an unassuming translator with Britain’s information-gathering GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), whose decision to leak a sensitive memo to the press got her hauled up on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act. Katharine is played with stoic determination by Keira Knightley. Fearful of the consequences, yet outraged at how the public is being misled, she delivers a couple of potent speeches on loyalty to one’s country over one’s government provided by Hood and co-scriptwriters Sara Bernstein and Gregory Bernstein.
Katharine works at transcribing and filing documents in a large office of similarly anonymous drones toiling away in their glass cubicles. It’s 2003; Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Colin Powell are all over TV advocating for war against Iraq in the wake of 9/11. The issue is about to come up for a vote at the United Nations Security Council, without whose approval the U.S. cannot lawfully invade Iraq. Then one day, a memo crosses Katharine’s virtual desk from U.S. Intelligence to their UK counterparts urging surveillance of Security Council members from swing vote nations in order to convince (read: blackmail) them to vote for the war.
Katharine is no radical peacenik, but she’s appalled at the idea of unleashing a war that’s justification has to be coerced by stealth. Especially as politicians continue to spread lies about phantom WMDs. As anti-war protestors march in the streets, she plucks up the nerve to burn a CD of the memo, print it out and hand it over to a friend with contacts in the press. No one is more shocked than Katharine when the memo is printed in its entirety on the front page of The Observer, in a story by journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith).
Katharine risks not only her own liberty and livelihood, but the safety of her Muslim-Turkish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri). And while The Observer officially supports the Blair-Bush war effort, the editorial staff can’t resist so timely a story just days before the U.N. Security Council votes. Sadly, the leaked memo doesn’t stop the war, but Katharine stands by her actions and her principles all the way to the Queen’s Bench.
Ralph Fiennes is terrific, as usual, as Katharine’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, an expert in human rights and international law. Other familiar faces doing a stand-up job are Matthew Goode as Bright’s newsroom colleague; Conleth Hill (Lord Varys from Game Of Thrones), unrecognizable as Bright’s feisty, foul-mouthed editor; and Jack Farthing (the odious villain in Poldark) as Katharine’s chipper cubicle-mate at GCHQ.
In a way, the movie almost makes one nostalgic for the Bush era, when the revelation of such bald-faced lies and corruption still had the power to incite outrage and moral courage. Those were the days.
*** (out of four)
With Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthew Goode. Written by Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein and Gavin Hood. From the book ‘The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion’ by Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell. Directed by Gavin Hood. Rated R. 112 minutes.