The further away we get from 2003, the harder it becomes to remember that many people were slow to outrage over the ginned up rationale for the Iraq War. Even those who oppose the war from the start had to wait months, if not years, for confirmation their suspicions were correct.
Memories of that quick march to a second open-ended, post-9/11 conflict are the intellectual heart of Official Secrets, which attempts to retell how a low-level British intelligence analyst named Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) attempted to stop the second Iraq War. Her plan? Leaking a top-secret U.S. memo saying the NSA was looking for information that could be used to blackmail United Nations delegates into supporting the invasion of Iraq.
Gun, as Knightley plays her, was unassuming in her work as a Mandarin translator for the Government Communications Headquarters, the U.K.’s counterpart to the NSA, but had sharp misgivings about the impending war. After a brief flash-forward, the movie cuts back to February 2003 and nary a scene wasted before the incriminating memo arrives in Katharine’s email. Without much deliberation, she prints it out and slips it to an activist friend, who gets it to a London newspaper.
Any emotional heft from that set-up – one that suggests a potboiler combination of noble espionage and gumshoe journalism – is tossed aside for a plodding docudrama more keen on lecturing about the obvious than exploring its character motivation. If the real-life Gun ever hesitated about becoming a whistleblower, the film doesn’t show it. Her outrage over the run-up to the war is expressed by having Knightley yell at her TV when the news shows Tony Blair or George W. Bush.
The director and co-writer, Gavin Hood, makes the journalism plot livelier, albeit somewhat cartoonishly. With the memo slipped to the Observer, it’s left to reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) to track down the NSA official who wrote it. Smith, no longer sporting the blond streaks from his turn as Prince Philip on The Crown, plays Bright as dogged, though greener than necessary. Luckily, there’s also Rhys Ifans as the wild-haired, madman veteran correspondent, Matthew Goode as a senior reporter, and Conleth Hill as a wormy editor to round out the cast of stock newsroom characters. But it’s not a bad representation of early-2000s journalism: While far from something like Spotlight, it’s still miles ahead of Sorkin, and the way they nearly fuck up the story is worth a chuckle.
But Official Secrets is ultimately about what happened to Gun after she was charged with violating the British law from which the movie gets its name. Hood attempts to recreate the months between when she leaked the memo and when she finally appeared in court, but those scenes require Knightley to do little more than grimace. Any suspense comes in a very brief subplot about the immigration status of Gun’s husband (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee who just happens to be hassled by the authorities while Katharine’s being investigated for divulging state secrets.
By the time Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma show up as Katharine’s do-gooder lawyers, the movie has lost its ambition to create intrigue or the slightest of twists, despite a cast stocked with more recognizable British actors than a Harry Potter adaptation. The dullness isn’t the performers’ fault, least of all Knightley, who does the most she can with a narrowly drawn character. The thrumming score is given more responsibility to remind you that this was a critical moment in history.
Hood, whose last film, Eye in the Sky, was a taut, sometimes nerve-wracking look at drone warfare, has a clear interest in contemporary Anglo-American warfare. Official Secrets has none of that punch. Hood reminds us that people were angry about the Iraq War, but not why we were angry. The result is a well-cast lecture as gripping as the source material’s Wikipedia page.