We are still figuring out how to make compelling films about 21st-century geopolitics. The stakes in this arena have never been higher, but they’ve also never been less visually exciting. Most unscrupulous maneuvers these days occur not in secret parking-structure meetings or hotel rooms, but behind computer screens, where the good people can frown while squinting at emails and .wav files.
The latest attempt to make such screens come alive isOfficial Secrets, a new biopic of Iraq War whistleblower Katharine Gun. In 2003, the British intelligence worker leaked a memo from the (American) National Security Agency asking her office to help arm-twist holdout countries in the United Nations run-up vote to authorize the war. By calling up intelligence forces to dig up dirt on allies, Gun believed the US was conspiring to launch an illegal and dangerous war by disreputable means. But when she leaked the memo, all hell broke loose, and she was put on trial for violating the U.K.’s tellingly named Official Secrets Act. This is good news for the drama based on Gun’s life, because it eventually gets her out of her cubicle and into the courtroom, where she stands inside a glass box that’s a lot more exciting to look at.
Gun is played by Keira Knightley, standing in principle while drowning in sweater sleeves. She comes onboard the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the NSA, as a low-level language analyst, seemingly kept in the dark as to the organization’s true nature. And Knightley plays Gun as relatable and down-to-earth, not a Snowden-type figure who was going in looking to stir up trouble.
In the run-up to the offending email, we see her at home in Cheltenham grinding her teeth as Tony Blair and George W. Bush make their televised case for going to war. “Yelling at the TV isn’t going to make any difference,” Gun’s husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) tells her, and so she takes that to heart, utilizing a network of anti-war activists to get the NSA’s memo into the hands ofObserverreporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith, trying out the cynical-journalist routine on his boyishThe Crownface).
Director Gavin Hood is no stranger to this kind of material, having already tackled extrajudicial intelligence schemes in his 2007 dramaRenditionand modern-day warfare in the 2015 drone thrillerEye in the Sky. AndOfficial Secretsdoesn’t shy away from placing the Iraq War under the harsh light of history, emphasizing the underhanded machinations both U.S. and U.K. intelligence used to secure public approval for their actions. In itsObserverscenes, the film also gets to critique the media’s failures in covering Iraq in a way that feels specific to the narrative — the left-of-center paper had formally endorsed the war before landing Gun’s scoop, so editors have shouting matches in the newsroom over whether they’re just carrying water for Blair and Bush.
But what Hood, and his co-writers Gregory and Sara Bernstein are actually building to is something far more ambitious and damning: putting the war itself on trial. They can do this with Gun’s story because her legal team, headed by Ralph Fiennes, decides that their best strategy is to demonstrate she was acting out of necessity, to stop an illegal war — thereby trumping the British law forbidding the sharing of government secrets. If you know Gun’s story, it won’t surprise you that it ends in something of an anticlimax. But it’s also where the film truly takes flight, as Hood is able to import the language of world affairs into the mechanics of a good courtroom drama (or about half of one, anyway).
And on the side is an attempt at a straightforward espionage thriller, though the material here is a bit thin and sometimes feels like we’re just biding time while the film can run its two-hour length. There’s a great fuss made over the identity of a mysterious NSA figure with the very Keyser Söze-esque name of “Frank Koza” (that part is real), and the familiar scenes where Gun, out in public, begins to believe she is being watched. But there’s not enough effort made to spice up the inherent drabness of a story that takes place mostly in offices. When minor characters leave the country, it’s a rare moment for some fresh air—though one reporter’s trip to Washington, D.C. mostly just results in a few tense phone calls.
As the Iraq War recedes into our rear-view mirror and our current news cycle spins blindly from one world crisis to another, films likeOfficial Secrets, bland as they may seem, will serve as crucial efforts to keep our past mistakes in our minds. And although 2003 may not seem like that long ago, this movie feels like a period setting in at least one respect: Someone like Gun still cares about trying to separate legal acts from illegal ones, and truth from lies.