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Review: Official Secrets (2019)

Official Secrets (2019)

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Premise: Based on true events. A translator (Keira Knightly) for the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters discovers that the United States and British intelligence agencies were spying on members of the United Nations Security Council to pressure a resolution supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

What Works: Filmmaker Gavin Hood has positioned himself as an overtly political filmmaker. He previously helmed the terrorism dramas Rendition and Eye in the Sky as well as the politically themed science fiction thriller Ender’s Game. Hood’s films are morally complex and his political pictures are about the degree to which rules are bent or broken for the sake of the greater good. The director’s 2019 effort Official Secrets is the story of whistleblower Katharine Gun and how she leaked classified information to the press about government malfeasance and then was legally prosecuted for violating the UK’s Official Secrets Act. The movie is about the power of the national security establishment which looms in the background against Katharine Gun who acts in accordance with her conscience. The memo that she leaked took a winding road before its contents ended up on the front page of the Observer newspaper and the filmmakers do an exceptional job of streamlining that story for the screen without oversimplifying the material. They also make clear the implications of the memo as well as why Gun made the decision to leak it to the press. Official Secrets is led by a performance by Keira Knightly as Gun and this is one of Knightly’s better performances. She embodies this woman’s courage but also her naiveté. As portrayed in this film, Gun thought that exposing the facts would matter and that truth might shield her from legal consequences. Gun’s disillusionment and her decision to fight back against the establishment is quite sober but this story has moments of absurdity and one of Official Secret’s unique qualities is its understated sense of humor. The logic of state secrecy is often circuitous and the resolution of the movie plays like a punchline to a very long joke. 

What Doesn’t: The fraud and corruption behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq are at this point generally acknowledged. A few movies, namely Green Zone and Fair Game, have already dramatized this issue. Official Secrets is as good as any of them and it tells a particularly unseemly tale from the lead up to the war but for viewers familiar with recent history, Official Secrets retreads a lot of what we already know. Its value at this point is less about the specifics of the invasion of Iraq and more about the power and reach of the national security establishment and the ability of the state to protect itself from embarrassment under the auspices of national security. 

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: Official Secrets is a well-crafted political drama. The movie deals thoughtfully with the responsibility of whistleblowers and the power of the national security establishment and the sometimes absurd nature of state secrecy. The movie was not widely seen in 2019 but it deserves to be sought out and given its due.

Episode: #794 (March 22, 2020)