Virtually everyone now agrees that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake based on faulty (at best) or fabricated (at worst) intelligence. Many protested at the time, but the person who risked the most in an attempt to prevent the war was perhaps Katharine Gun. A British intel functionary, she leaked a top secret NSA memo in which the United States, gung-ho to drop bombs and getting nowhere with the UN, sought assistance to more or less blackmail several Security Council swing-vote nations. Official Secrets recounts Gun’s story, from her fateful decision (which of course accomplished nothing in the end, even though the leak quickly went public) to her bizarre criminal trial. And the film never even really attempts to transcend a dry, procedural synopsis of what happened. Still, this is a story that’s been largely forgotten in the years since it happened, and perhaps some folks in the current U.S. administration could use a pointed reminder of what conscience looks like.
Somewhat naïvely, Gun (Keira Knightley) had no expectation, when she passed a copy of the memo to an anti-war friend, that its entire contents would wind up splashed on the pages of the Observer. (Matt Smith, a.k.a. Doctor Who no. 11, plays the reporter who breaks the story, with Conleth “Lord Varys” Hill as his splenetic editor.) For a while, she attempts to remain anonymous, knowing that the perpetrator could very well be charged with violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act. Unable to bear watching colleagues receive the third degree, she eventually confesses, and the Crown subsequently does indict her—while also insisting that she can’t discuss any details of her case even with lawyers, as that would constitute an additional, indictable violation. Nonetheless, a civil-rights attorney named Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) devises a unique defense strategy that amounts to putting the Iraq War itself on trial, arguing that Gun was justified in breaking the law because she did so in an effort to expose even greater and more ruinous illegality on the part of the British (and American) government. For those who don’t know or remember how this played out in court, the film’s finale will come as a genuine surprise.
Not much else is surprising, as Official Secrets rarely deviates from the standard whistleblower template. The film’s director and cowriter, Gavin Hood, has spent his career shuttling back and forth between big-budget frivolity (Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and righteously indignant political dramas like this one (Rendition, Eye In The Sky). He’s significantly more skilled at the latter, but tends to settle for didactic point-scoring in the absence of ethically thorny material. Katharine Gun, as passionately embodied here by Knightley, skews too noble to be particularly interesting, and the film is weakest when it’s focused on her and her husband (Adam Bakri), a Muslim immigrant who’s nearly deported as a crude bullying tactic. What compels are the offbeat details surrounding the case, like the Observer’s pained realization that the paper accidentally created the impression of a fake memo (per a triumphant Drudge Report “exposé”) because somebody ran the text through spellcheck. Things perk up when Fiennes belatedly appears, and while this isn’t one of the performances he’ll be remembered for, by any means, he delivers a fine moment of utter disgust at the government’s naked corruption in the film’s very last scene. Ending on that note feels right.