Sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Katharine Gun is a Mandarin translator for Britain’s secretive Government Communications Headquarters. On what would otherwise be a normal work day, Katharine comes across a memo from the U.S. National Security Agency, asking British intelligence to spy on five UN Security Council members. The Bush Administration needs to justify a war against Saddam Hussein and hopes to pressure five countries – Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, and Guinea – to vote for the UN resolution.
Katharine, like so many British citizens, is opposed to the war. Knowing that she’s placing herself in jeopardy, she hopes that if the memo is made public, the invasion might never happen. She mails a copy to an anti-war friend. Days after placing the letter in the mailbox, she’s relieved that nothing seems to happen. Then the headlines hit. The document found its way to The Observer where reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith of The Crown) and D.C. correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) verify the contents and convince their editor to run with the story.
Katharine’s superiors are not pleased and immediately launch an investigation, hauling her co-workers in for intense interviews and threatening polygraph tests if no one fesses up. Also on edge is Katharine’s husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee who came to England from Turkey. Since he’s seeking asylum, he can’t understand why she would place both of their lives at risk. Katharine tries to remain anonymous, even getting through her own interview. But when she sees her co-workers being pressured, she turns herself in. She’s charged with violating the Official Secrets Act and is ordered not to discuss the particulars of her case even with her lawyers, since that might reveal other matters the government has deemed must remain secret. Fortunately for Katharine, she hires a savvy attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who comes up with a clever defense.
Even though there’s a clandestine meeting between Bright and a source in a parking garage, Official Secrets is a far cry from All the President’s Men. While Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting helped to bring down a president, The Observer’s story is discredited, thanks to the over eager actions of a newsroom assistant. Reporter Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode of Downton Abbey) is dispatched to Iraq to report on whether the U.S. finds any weapons of mass destruction. By then the war is well underway and neither The Observer nor Gun can stop the runaway train.
Director Gavin Hood manages to make the office scenes – whether in Gun’s secretive outpost, or The Observer’s frenetic newsroom – believable, if not all that exciting. Only so much that can be done when people are staring at computer monitors. There’s the interaction one would expect between close, and yet competitive, workers. At times the film feels claustrophobic, especially in Katharine’s apartment where, after the news breaks, she’s forced to hide out. Perhaps the most engaging scenes in the film focus on Fiennes. He not only takes over Katharine’s case, but with his presence and demeanor, he takes over the film. That’s not to say that Knightley’s performance is weak. It’s not. She manages to muster up the outrage as well as the fear one would expect to see in someone who is about to take on two of the most powerful governments on earth.
We now know much more about the Iraq War and several other films examine the faulty intelligence that led us down this rabbit hole. What Gun did barely registers as a blip in the history of the Iraq War. That’s often the fate of whistleblowers who take a big risk and often end up losing their jobs, reputations, even their families and friends.
Photos courtesy of IFC Films