Updated: Feb 9, 2020
In 2003, with her country on the brink of war, Katharine Gun, an agent of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), received an email from the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) requesting aid in bugging the offices of several UN nations in an effort to get them to approve the invasion of Iraq. Gun was so bothered by this that she gave the email to a friend who then passed it on to a journalist for The Observer.
The drama Official Secrets tells this true story (based on the 2008 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) in a way that is oddly only sort of about Gun. She was certainly a major player in getting the document to the public. But it never completely engages with Gun past her role in this event. What it wants to show is why she needed to do what she did and the effect her action had throughout the country. It distances itself from the personal, yet is still an informative and occasionally compelling movie.
Katharine is a government employee, loyal to her country to the point of violating Britain’s official secrets act to protect her fellow citizens. She was convinced there were no WMDs in Iraq and refused to stand by and watch people die for a lie. She is married to an Iraqi immigrant, but their love for each other is mainly used to provide extra drama. We do not get to know her beyond her righteousness. Keira Knightley is solid as Gun, good at portraying her anger and fear. However, she is playing an idea, instead of a fully developed character. Due to that, it does not always work as drama.
It does work as an interesting piece of little known history, as well as a look at the role of journalists in the government/citizen relationship. Katharine’s decision and its aftermath is just part of the story. The other half focuses on the journalists and editors who must decide whether to publish the leaked email. This adds both context and insight, making it about what the deception and its exposure meant in the big picture.
The movie unquestionably considers Katharine a hero. While she did betray her government, it was in service of the people she believes she truly represents. She saw something she knew was wrong and put herself at risk in an attempt to prevent it. Since that happens fairly quickly, without any moral struggle, all the drama comes from waiting to see if she will be punished. Because we barely get to know her, Official Secrets (105 minutes without the end credits) never builds tension from her predicament. This is a case where keeping the characters mostly as symbols hurt in one area and paid off in another.
The conversations about what is right versus what is legal and the role of the individual in keeping politicians honest are brought to the screen with a passion and intelligence that give the movie its purpose. The step-by-step process of how things went from the email turning up in Katharine’s inbox to her defending herself in court is surprisingly complex. I have no idea if it is entirely accurate in its retelling, but it seems like it knows what it is talking about. That fact-based approach is successful at giving this adaptation its impact, even if it can be pretty dry.
The story of a government employee assisting the media in speaking truth to power is a fascinating one. Official Secrets is not the most entertaining, yet it is thought-provoking. Its existence is worthwhile, despite its total lack of thrills or suspense. It is a straightforward, professionally made, movie that leads with its subject matter. Though it may not be exciting, its value comes from having something important to say and spending its whole running time saying it.
3¼ out of 5
Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun
Matt Smith as Martin Bright
Matthew Goode as Peter Beaumont
Adam Bakri as Yasar Gun
Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson
Rhys Ifans as Ed Vulliamy
Directed by Gavin Hood
Screenplay by Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein and Gavin Hood