‘Official Secrets’ Spins an Intriguing Thriller out of a Whistle-Blower’s Real Saga

Some individuals suddenly find themselves risking a lot over moral choices. This is what happened to British intelligence worker Katharine Gun, who realized the British government was colluding with the U.S. to build a convenient narrative for invading Iraq. Her story is told in “Official Secrets,” an intriguing film where suspense crackles from the tension of one woman taking on the state. Even if there had never been an Iraq War this would have been an engrossing film, but it becomes more powerful with the knowledge that what it presents did actually take place.

It’s 2003 and Gun (Keira Knightley) works for GCHQ, which links U.S. and U.K. intelligence services and essentially spies on selected targets. The news is being dominated by the George W. Bush administration’s push to invade Iraq under the pretext of dismantling Saddam Hussein’s phantom weapons of mass destruction. Then an email comes across Gun’s inbox from the NSA detailing how the two allied governments are attempting to find compromising material on UN Security Council members, in order to apply pressure to get a pro-war resolution passed. Gun makes a bold choice and decides to leak the information to The Observer, where journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith) works under the eye of pro-war editor Roger Alton (Conleth Hill). But like any good editor Alton won’t let a good story pass and publishes the material. This unleashes a public firestorm with accusations of fabricated evidence. When GCHQ decides to carry out an internal investigation Gun decides to turn herself in, confessing to the leak. It’s a choice that could easily land her in prison for defying a government’s Machiavellian policies. 

Director Gavin Hood is one of those few, select filmmakers like Paul Greengrass who have attempted to make mainstream cinematic narratives of the post-9/11 world. In 2007 Hood directed “Rendition,” an undervalued movie about the Bush administration’s infamous snatch and grab program during its War on Terror. His 2015 “Eye in the Sky” pondered the moral and political choices behind drone warfare. “Official Secrets” moves with the pace of recent whistleblower thrillers like Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” combining snippets of a person’s autobiography with the moments that suddenly brought them into conflict with historical forces. Hood wears his politics on his sleeve and there’s no doubt where the movie stands regarding Iraq, Bush and state secrets. The moral stances here are clear, the government was spinning a false narrative and Gun decided that was wrong. She sits at home with her husband, an Iraqi Kurdish immigrant named Yasar (Adam Bakri), and shouts at the TV when Bush and Tony Blair give their grandiose speeches against the Hussein regime and its supposed threat to the world. The screenplay by Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein and Hood is more challenging than your average spy movie, raising the question of should someone working for a government defy the system to support truth. When interrogated by the police Gun gives a Frank Capra-worthy statement, reminding them she doesn’t work for the British government but for the British people.

Political thrillers are tricky to pull off because the wrong approach can lead to sluggish pacing where characters are reduced to just preaching information. In “Official Secrets” we do get those moments where people sit around and give rundowns of what was going at the time, recapping 9/11 and the political debate over Iraq. But Hood frames it with the energy of journalistic thrillers like “All the President’s Men” or “The Insider,” giving us a tour through an early 2000s newsroom environment. Matt Smith of “The Crown” is your quintessential newsman on a beat, while Rhys Ifans plays Washington correspondent Ed Vulliamy, a scraggly warrior with a pen shouting to editors that they shouldn’t lick the boots of power. There’s an excitement as they try to verify if the leaked email is real, tracking down sources and embodying a newspaper world which today has changed so much. 

Once Gun confesses and the film becomes more of a legal drama it takes on a particular, ominous dimension with prosecutors bringing charges and even Yasar becoming a target of immigration authorities. Moments where Gun is questioned by government and police officials have an Orwellian claustrophobia. Here the movie could benefit from a slightly longer running time. Some fascinating and engaging characters are introduced, such as lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who defends Gun with genuine sincerity and a fiery idealism. Keira Knightley, who has been in a whole slew of genres from blockbuster behemoths to intimate dramas, plays Gun with intelligence and the tension of a lucid person suddenly finding her life under siege. One of her best scenes involves a GCHQ suit putting her through a psychological interrogation to sniff out the leaker, and Knightley plays the scene like a duel of wills.

“Official Secrets” is not without its faults. It sacrifices a deeper profile of Gun as an individual to focus more intently on the issue of Iraq. Some critics have complained about the trial at the end being anti-climactic, but it’s actually intriguing in how it looks at the way states work and are willing to do anything to save face. And in a time when heroes are only considered as such if they take on super villains, there’s something truly heroic about a woman telling the cops she leaked because of a moral stance. For Gun the thought of standing by while her government carries out a brutal war tore her apart inside. Some movies offer a lot of fireworks and little substance, this one actually has something to say.

Official Secrets” opens Aug. 30 in select theaters.