Remember back in 2003, when US Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations to make the case for war against Iraq, basing his appeal on what later turned out to be false intelligence linking Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda and Weapons of Mass Destruction? Of course you do. Need a refresher, or a reason to get your blood boiling all over again? Official Secrets should do the trick.
It’s based on the true story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley, The Aftermath, Colette, Pirates of the Caribbean), a 29-year-old translator who worked for Britain’s equivalent of the NSA. One day in January of 2003, Gun was copied on an email from the NSA that basically asked for dirt on smaller, non-permanent members of the UN Security Council so their leaders could be pressured – or blackmailed – into supporting a controversial war resolution endorsed by the US and Britain. Gun was appalled, and proceeded to covertly pass a copy of the email to an antiwar activist and subsequently, the press. Her aim: to stop an unjust war. Her reward: she was charged with violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act, a law that basically prevented anyone working in government from revealing sensitive government information, even if that information was perpetuating, or tantamount to, a lie.
Official Secrets is not the most compelling film, but it does tell an interesting story that carries a message that deserves to resonate in these modern times. It’s about doing the right thing, even if it means taking a risk, personally and professionally. The film is directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Eye in the Sky) and features a strong supporting cast that includes Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The Grand Budapest Hotel), Matt Smith (Doctor Who, The Crown), Matthew Goode (Brideshead Revisited, The Good Wife), Adam Bakri (Omar) and Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Snowden). Speaking of Snowden, Gun’s story brings inevitable comparisons to Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and other whistleblowers who’ve leaked government secrets in the name of transparency. Gun’s actions, however, appear to be far more justified, defensible and benign. She leaked a single email that was cc’d to about a hundred other people who chose to let it slide. She owned up to her actions. She didn’t run and hide. She also didn’t seek the limelight. She just followed her conscience and hoped that somehow war might be averted. It wasn’t.
Official Secrets is a hodgepodge of biographical drama, political and spy thriller, and journalistic outrage (hints of The Post, All the President’s Men, etc.). Try as it might to build tension and suspense, it never comes close to fever pitch. So you can wait for the rental – or read the book, “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion.” Or simply share the key takeaway from Gun herself: she’d do it all again.