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Movie Review: ‘OFFICIAL SECRETS’ (2019)

category ireland / britain | imperialism / war | review author Sunday August 22, 2021 21:24author by LAMA - AWSM Report this post to the editors

A review of a movie about a whistleblower in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Spy movies are popular. The James Bond series for example, has been going for decades. It provides escapism, but little to do with reality. Non-fiction spy movies are less in number and less popular. Within this category there is a sub-genre of movies that look at whistleblowers. One well known example is about Edward Snowden (Snowden 2016). A more recent film looking at a little known yet topically related case, is Official Secrets (2019).

This movie charts the actions of Katherine Gun. She was a young language expert who had grown up in Taiwan and had taught in Japan. Upon moving to England, she initially struggled to find a job that would use her linguistic skills. Then by chance she noticed a position working for an organisation she had little idea about. They were called GCHQ and had a job, so she signed on.

GCHQ are based in a big metal doughnut in Cheltenham, a town mostly known for its horse race and an elite girls school. Their function? On its current website they describe themselves briefly and with a large dose of chutzpah as “We are the UK’s intelligence and cyber agency. Our mission is to help keep the country safe”. Katherine naively bought into this description. That is until she received an email in 2003 from somebody at the National Security Agency (NSA), the US equivalent to the GCHQ. The email was asking the UK government to spy on diplomats from uncommitted countries at the United Nations on behalf of the US at a time when the Bush administration was trying to gain support for an illegal invasion of Iraq. Katherine felt uneasy. She copied the email and leaked it to the media via a peace movement activist. Soon she caved into the internal investigation and admitted to being the source of the leak. There followed a potential prosecution and efforts to gain legal representation.

The movie’s portrayal of the case is refreshingly straight forward. Both in the sense of taking a (mostly) linear narrative approach and eschewing any fancy effects. There are no flashbacks or elaborate time jumps, a limited soundtrack, simple but professional camera work and a drained colour palette. Whether these are stylistic choices and/or a sign of financial constraints, this combination of factors works in the story’s favour. Apparently the personnel attached to the project changed significantly over time, so the fact it got made at all is a minor miracle. Though the strong writing and ongoing interest in the subject, mean it perhaps had a better than average chance of winning the game of roulette that movie making often is.

The lead is taken by Keira Knightley. The actress has been around a long time and proven herself more than just a pouty sidekick to male leads (Pirates of the Caribbean series). Here Knightley does an excellent job of showing that Katherine (who she looks nothing like, by the way) was motivated by a simple sense of conscience. The actress gets a chance to slowly simmer at times, to show vulnerability and even in a few instances to get angry but in an oh-so British and non-hammy way. Her performance keeps you engaged. Kudos also goes to Matt Smith (Dr Who, The Crown) who plays the likeable journalist who helps Katherine and Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient) as the lawyer who takes her case. The latter is able to blend chameleon-like into the role, with an attractive energy that doesn’t over-power Knightley’s central character.

One potential weakness of movies like this, is that they can devolve into a series of boxed in scenes in crowded offices. Characters spew forth lots of expository dialogue that can make the drama drag in places, for example, All the President’s Men (1976). However, if you want to avoid the 007 end of the spectrum, you have to keep things grounded in reality while looking for moments of ‘thrill’. This is hard when the main protagonist is a keyboard nerd. However, Official Secrets does manage to tease out a few such scenes. Without giving vital details, one is a brilliantly calibrated sequence in a newspaper office that shows how the smallest of things, in this case a spelling issue, can have massive consequences. Another is a race against time in a car, one that thankfully doesn’t involve a car chase or guns. Lastly, the initial moments of the court case take a surprising twist. These combined with the acting and steady pacing, add just the right amount of spice to avoid the stodginess that the story could easily veer into.

Official Secrets and the case of Katherine Gun deserves wider attention. This is especially true as the war in Iraq recedes into history. An entire generation has been born and grown up since the events depicted. They are the potential victims, working people, soldiers and whistleblowers of the future. Hopefully this movie may play a small part (it is just a movie, after all) in reducing the number of victims and soldiers in times to come, while boosting the knowledge of workers and the resolve of whistleblowers.

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