South African actor-director Gavin Hood most recently helmed 2015's Eye in the Sky, a taut fictionalization of modern warfare and its fraught moral landscape. The characters in that film were military personnel grappling with complications in a proposed drone strike. It was an edge-of-your-seat political drama.
The characters in Official Secrets, Hood's latest film, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee and Chagrin Cinemas and elsewhere, are not fictional. The film dramatizes the case of Katharine Gun, an analyst with Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who leaked a confidential memo in 2003 that exposed the U.S. plot to pressure U.N. Security Council members to secure a vote greenlighting the invasion of Iraq.
The Iraq War is one of the 21st century's largest-scale humanitarian crimes. As many as a million people were killed as a result of U.S. aggression, launched under false pretenses: that Saddam Hussein harbored so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction. Everyone knows by now that the WMDs never existed, that they were pure propaganda, and the film illustrates just how overwhelmingly the public disapproved of military operations in Iraq, especially in Britain, the United States' principal shill and minion in the war effort.
Gun (Keira Knightly), who worked primarily as a translator, received a memo from the NSA asking British spies to surveil countries on the U.N. Security Council who'd be likely to bend under pressure. This was a request that Gun could scarcely believe. She was a political junkie and can be seen spouting off at TVs through the early part of the film, baffled at the boldfaced lies of Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
The film chronicles the London Observer's publication of the NSA memo — with trench-coated reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and outspoken American correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) leading the charge — and Gun's eventual legal representation by Liberty, a firm specializing in human rights abuse and civil liberties. Ben Emmerson (an even-keeled Ralph Fiennes) is the lead lawyer on the case.
Though it deals with a weighty moral question — Gun's decision to expose an illegal war and prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths — the film lacks the dramatic structure and urgency of Eye in the Sky, which takes place in something like real time. The film works better as a history lesson, reinforcing the audacity of the American war enterprise in defiance of public sentiment, than as a political thriller. The climax, for example, is a major letdown in strictly narrative terms. Weird moments like the Drudge Report's questioning of the authenticity of the Observer's memo, due to its publication with British spellings, are true to history but confusing in context. What was that scene for?
The waifish Knightly is all trembling lips for much of the film, so her metamorphosis into a principled activist prepared to surrender her life to take on the government is a bit of a surprise. But by and large, the film is a necessary depiction of whistleblowers as a just and positive force. No person with their head screwed on can watch this film and sympathize with the liars and plunderers who duped the world that they might more efficiently conquer it.