Review: An Impressive Cast Carries the Truth and Drama of Official Secrets

Often times when a dramatic film attempts to retell a true-life story, it takes certain liberties with facts or characters to make the work seem more cinematic in the end. And that’s fine in most cases. If you’re a stickler for undiluted truth, you’re welcome to take in as many documentaries as you can fit into your eye holes—you will literally never run out if you start right now.

I don’t know if any of director/co-writer Gavin  Hood’s (Eye in the Sky, Tsotsi) Official Secrets strays far from the facts, but he has constructed what I believe is a deliberately dry but accurate account of a British government intelligence specialist who blew the whistle on her government in 2003. She recognized that her office was being told to help the United States gather blackmail material on UN Security Council members from nations who were not cooperating in passing a resolution that would have fully sanctioned the US war against Iraq. In other words, they were asked to sell the world on an illegal war.

Official Secrets
Image courtesy of IFC Films

As a result of her discovery (she worked as a translator who listened to recordings of wire taps for the purposes of government-sanctioned spying), Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) got the NSA memo about the blackmail, through clandestine channels, to The Observer newspaper, whose piece on the news set off a firestorm of political intrigue and embarrassed a great number of government types on both sides of the Atlantic. Gun wasn’t a secret antiwar advocate or a traditional whistleblower or agitator; to her the case was clear: the US was lying about Iraq being a threat to the world and dragging Britain along for the ride because it could. She was eventually branded a traitor, putting her immigrant husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurd, in great danger of being deported (he was not a part of her decision to steal the memo and didn’t find out she’d done it until after it was done).

But Official Secrets isn’t just Gun’s story (although the book the film is based on is titled 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). Hood and company spend a great deal of time in the offices of The Observer, as they thoroughly research the credibility of the memo and figure out the best way to write up this earth-shattering story. Matt Smith plays reporter Martin Bright, who first receives the memo without knowing who it’s from. Rhys Ifans plays Ed Vulliamy, who has been looking to poke holes in the US’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction for months. Conleth Hill plays editor Roger Alton, who is concerned that the paper has already come out in favor of Britain entering the war alongside America, but also can’t resist a great story. The genius means by which they verify the memo is inspiring and thrilling, which is impressive considering the film isn’t paced with any real urgency most of the time but still manages to quicken the pulse.

The third prong in this story belongs to the law office that defends Katharine when she is finally identified as the leak. Ralph Fiennes plays the practical, low-key attorney Ben Emmerson, who doesn’t believe in big dramatic moments, but instead dives deep into the timing of Britain’s official stance that a war in Iraq was no longer illegal. Emmerson’s detail-oriented investigative process is one of the stronger advocates on film for brains over the muscle of a government with an agenda, and Fiennes just keeps on adding to his list of flawlessly realized performances. In fact, there is no weak link on the acting front in Official Secrets, and that’s key because the material can be rather dry (which is not to say that this is an emotionless affair). Knightley gives a powerful, impassioned performance that is also her attempting to capture a woman who doesn’t want her decision to be thought of as impulsive. Instead, Gun was simply an advocate for the truth, not interested in getting her name in the papers.

Even if Official Secrets has moments where it diverges from the truth, it feels honest in capturing Gun, the journalists and the attorneys who contributed to these historic events of which I’m guessing most Americans aren’t even aware. The film features the type of solid, no-frills storytelling that should be celebrated and embraced more often. In fact, there’s a movie coming out in November called The Report, starring Adam Driver, that also follows this manner of letting its story unfold naturally and honestly, with impressive results. Give both a shot.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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