Official Secrets is not kinetic cinema. Instead, it dumps a ton of data on audiences in telling the true story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), the British whistleblower who leaked classified documents meant to pressure the U.N. Security Council into supporting the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But even when director Gavin Hood’s political thriller fails to thrill, there’s no doubting the continuing relevance of the topic on the table. Gun, an intelligence operative at GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), a British surveillance agency tasked with ferreting out terrorist activity, sits at home in Cheltenham, talking back to Prime Minister Tony Blair on the telly as he pushes the George W. Bush war agenda that claims Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons of mass destruction. “Just because you’re the prime minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts,” she sneers, as visions of The Donald dance in the heads of contemporary cynics of institutional mendacity.
But Gun goes further than mumbling curses at the TV screen while her Muslim husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish-Turk, gripes about preferring to watch football. Back at GCHQ, Gun is copied on a top-secret memo from U.S. intelligence requesting that the Brits lean on (translation: blackmail) five UN Security Council swing-vote members — Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, and Guinea — to vote for invasion. Fired up with indignation over the deception as well as her own antiwar sentiments, heightened by humanist concern for 30 million Iraqis, Gun leaks the memo. This puts her in violation of the Official Secrets Act, a treasonable offense that has dire consequences.
In the interest of hewing to the truth of the situation, Gun and co-screenwriters Sara and Gregory Bernstein lay out the process with a diagrammatic precision that dampens suspense, as does the well-known fact that Gun did not stop the calamitous war. There’s a pale attempt at journalistic drama in the mode of All the President’s Men as Guardian reporter Martin Bright, nicely played by Matt Smith (a former Dr. Who and a dynamite Prince Phillip on The Crown), breaks the Gun story with the help of colleague Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) and volatile D.C. reporter Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans). It’s hard not to appreciate the darkly comic irony when Bright’s scoop is discredited after the word “favorite” in the leaked U.S. memo is printed the British way: favourite. No conspiracy, just a spellcheck fix no one caught.
The rest is taken up with Gun prepping for her day in court with the help of human rights attorney Ben Emmerson, played with fierce intellect and enlivening wit by Ralph Fiennes. How can Emmerson defend a woman who actually confessed to her crime? By putting the war itself on trial — a rich theme that the film devotes too little time to developing. Knightley gives her all to making Gun a fully dimensional human being onscreen, but the didactic script defeats her at nearly every turn. And so a historical footnote with potent resonance right now fails to get the screen treatment it deserves. Official Secrets remains a compelling tale of injustice on an individual and global level. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been told better, but give it points for being told at all.