OFFICIAL SECRETS. Country: UK / USA. Director: Gavin Hood. Screenwriters: Gavin Hood, Gregory Bernstein, Sara Berstein. Based on the book by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion.” Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, MyAnna Buring, Adam Bakri, Tasmin Greig. Language, English. Runtime: 112 minutes. Release Date: August 30, 2019. Venue, IFC Center. Mostly Indies rating: B+
You probably never heard of the backstory that became Gavin Hood’s latest incursion into political wars, the movie Official Secrets. At the time, I was constantly glued to CNN and other news media outlets and barely heard a peep into it (at least on this side of the pond) and any news item coming from the UK may have been during the late nights, or through BBC America. In short, the true story of Official Secrets concerns the whistleblower actions of Katharine Gun, a Mandarin-Chinese translator working for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who in early 2003 came across an email (as did her entire unit) sent by Frank Koza, chief of the NSA, That email, which normally would have vanished into the agency’s intranet, traveled much farther than originally intended. It essentially requested GCHQ to conduct a secret (and illegal) eavesdropping on six non permanent members of the United Nations — among them Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Pakistan — to monitor their reaction to the debate on Iraq. The reason for this was because these “swing” nations were critical for the push for the war against Iraq.
Katharine’s reaction to the email is equal parts horror and outrage. Taking a printed copy of the email home with her, she gives it to a friend (MyAnna Barling) who later on passes it on, where it lands as an article in The Observer and into the hands of journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith) who conducts a research to see if email mentioned in the article is valid. When that becomes the case, the paper publishes the email; however, the US Government is able to deny any involvement. Meanwhile at GCHQ, tensions are mounting as every employee is being interrogated. Knowing that she must do the right thing, She admits to being the one who leaked the email, gets arrested, and sees her life start to fall apart around her as she must now seek to defend her actions while her Kurdish husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) also faces the pressure and threat to be deported.
Movies involving whistleblowers are always fascinating because they portray the almost archetypical conflicted person going against tradition and raising their hand to uncover the man behind the curtain. As far back as All The Kings Horses, and most recently, as The Post, they always, invariably, make for compelling storytelling, stellar acting, and in creating an atmosphere of pure paranoia that often threatens to swallow the characters whole. After all, we live in a world where we now know to the extent that the powers that be may seek to influence those in key positions to steer nations as if they were prized vehicles into a pre-packaged outcome. Official Secrets is a tense as fuck expose story with compelling performances by Keira Knightley (for once not doing a period piece), Matt Smith, and Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson. Stick to the end to see the real Katharine Gun speaking out after she is exonerated by the British Court.