Official Secrets is the fact based story of how whistle blower, Katharine Gun, a
GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) employee leaked a secret memo
which revealed info on an illegal spying operation run by the United States
under the Bush administration. The USA and British officials were using personal
info they uncovered to blackmail United Nations diplomats that were slated to
vote on a resolution regarding the invasion of Iraq.
The adept screenplay is based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War:
Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion” by Marcia and
Thomas Mitchell. It was written by Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein and the
director, Gavin Hood, and would have made a much better title for the film.
The film stars Keira Knightley who gives a memorable, inspiring performance
(perhaps one of the best of the year.) Even though she has been associated with
costume dramas, the English actress, Knightley has had an extremely eclectic and
distinguished career, and I have long admired her work.
She played Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire in The Duchess (her
costar in that film was also Ralph Fiennes who is also in Official Secrets); an
oppressed author/wife in the biopic, Collete; Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and
Prejudice, the psychoanalytic pioneer, Spielrein in A Dangerous Method; and a
spunky young soccer player in Bend It Like Beckham. The less said about her
Pirates of the Caribbean series roles the better.
Official Secrets contains one of her most convincing and impressive
performances. It is the above average acting overall that props this film up
from what could have been in lesser hands the an ordinary, forgettable
The film’s engaging supporting cast including Matt Smith (he was fine here but
he was one of my least favorite Doctors on Dr. Who), Matthew Goode (Ozymandias
in the film adaptation of D.C.’s
Watchmen), Adam Bakri (a relative newcomer to
film), Game of Thrones graduate, Indira Varma, and of course Ralph Fiennes
(Schindler’s List and Spider). It is refreshing that the film features the best
actors for the roles even if they are not necessarily the biggest stars.
Early in the film, Gunn is shown to be politically engaged, idealistic and
passionate, and she is already livid with rage over the illegal War in Iraq.
Watching the evening news, she screams at Tony Blair on her television: “Just
because you’re Prime Minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts!”
Her husband, a Turkish refugee, states the obvious when he responds, “he can’t
While she was working as a translator for British intelligence, Gun found out
the United States and the United Kingdom were essentially blackmailing other
countries in the U.N. Security Council into supporting an invasion of Iraq. The
information quickly made it into the press. When it came out that Gun was the
leaker, she was eventually prosecuted under the country’s Official Secrets Act.
The newspaper reporter from the London Observer (Rhys Ifans), and his editors
catch some flack (Matt Smith and Matthew Goode) for running the story when it is
challenged by the government. At first all of the newspaper reporters on other
papers and TV media are hot to jump on the breaking story, but eventually they
all withdraw when it comes out that the spelling on the original memo was
different than the spelling on the version printed in the papers (it turns out
that a younger colleague foolishly put the memo through spell check.) Later they
tell the truth about the story and many people believed them.
The whole incident causes huge, unforeseen problems for everyone involved. Gun
is married to a legal immigrant but the government quickly deports him to put
pressure on Gun. Also, the lawyer who represents Gun (Ralph Fiennes) has a
politician friend on the other side (Jeremy Northam) and this complicates and
severely damages their friendship.
The film shows us how whistle blowers who alert us to real life government
crimes often pay a greater penalty than those that actually hurt large
populations people when they are breaking the law. It also shows how the idea of
privacy is diminished in our increasingly surveillance dominated society. It also
proves once again that institutions are often much more concerned with bad PR or
maintaining the social order than actually serving their constituents.
One of the main reasons why this film has far less of an impact than some
previous government conspiracy thrillers like say The Conversation and All the
President’s Men is that so many of us have become more jaded after revelations
about events such as Watergate and the arms for hostages deal. We have been so
inundated with news of unethical and illegal acts by the government that almost
nothing is shocking anymore. But this is still a smart and competent drama.