Government whistleblower drama is realistically disappointing
Official Secrets (2019)
Cast: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode
Everyone knows that their government—and the various other governments around the world—are doing some shady things. It’s a given. And for the most part, citizens prefer not to know what all that shady stuff is. It’s too much to handle. The hope, of course, is that all that clandestine business is to the benefit of our country and its people. The deep-seated suspicion is that it’s secretly benefiting those in power—and only those in power. And the unspoken fear is that it’s actively detrimental to all life on Earth. So, in general, people tend to adopt an eyes-closed, ears-covered approach when it comes to government secrecy. At the same time, most are quietly assuming that if things get really bad (like Watergate or Three Mile Island kinda bad), someone (the press, a morally upstanding politician, a government whistleblower) will step up and inform us.
Official Secrets, a dutiful, based-
The film is set in early 2003. The events of 9/11 were causing tension and mistrust all over the world. America, for example, was very keen on going to war in Iraq with Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator didn’t actually have anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, but he made for a very convenient boogeyman and was part of America’s prevailing narrative of “The War on Terror.” We couldn’t go after Saudia Arabia, which supplied the lion’s share of 9/11 terrorists, and hunting Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan proved extremely difficult. So America really wanted to get a “win” by killing Hussein. The administration of George W. Bush came up with the excuse that Hussein was stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction” and used that as a way to goad allies into an all-out invasion. But as we all eventually learned, there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction. Oh well.
The story of Official Secrets picks up over in England, where a lowly British intelligence translator by the name of Katherine Gun (played here by a de-glammed Keira Knightley) gets an email from a division chief at the US National Security Agency. The email basically lays out plans for the NSA and Britain’s MI5 to blackmail delegates on the United Nations Security Council—most of whom know there are no weapons of mass destruction—into voting for the Iraq invasion. The contents of the email are a clear violation of global diplomacy, and Gun knows it. She secretly copies the document and passes it on to a former colleague now knee-deep in the antiwar movement, who hands it off to contacts at London’s Observer newspaper.
From here on out, Official Secrets becomes a well-meaning, professionally constructed entry in the “diligent journalists expose government misdeeds” genre. You could easily put it on a shelf alongside All the President’s Men or The Post—although you’d quickly realize that this particular story lacks the cynical punch of Watergate or the Vietnam War or, well, pretty much anything prior to the mid-’80s. Going in, few audiences will have heard of Katherine Gun. But they will know one salient fact: She completely failed to prevent the Iraq War from proceeding as planned. It happened. It was a mess. And it’s still a mess. Oh well.
At The Observer, a flippant but tenacious reporter named Martin Bright (Matt Smith from “Doctor Who”) ends up with Gun’s illicitly copied documents. The paper’s ultraconservative publisher (Conleth Hill) isn’t interested in attacking the government—but by gum, even he comes around when the evidence starts mounting. Bright enlists the help of a war-correspondent colleague (Matthew Goode) and a seedy Washington reporter (Rhys Ifans) and gets to work.
Like its predecessors in the genre, Official Secrets is a testament to the legwork and fact-gathering skills of good reporters. There is a certain intellectual thrill to seeing the puzzle pieces click together. And in its best moments (the film’s middle third, basically), Official Secrets hums along with urgency and moral exemplification. But even the film’s script admits that it’s treading on well-worn territory. When a secret informer insists on meeting with Bright in a shadowy car park, the reporter comments on how the scene is all just a little too “Deep Throat” for his taste.
Eventually, the story swings back to Katherine and the Government Communications Headquarters investigation into who leaked that secret NSA email. Katherine comes forward and admits her role and is promptly charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. Making matters worse is the fact that her husband (Adam Bakri) is Muslim and at risk of deportation. Gun hires a human rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes, who arrives too late to the proceedings to make much of an impression) and heads to court. The film’s final narrative arc goes the courtroom drama route, allowing its main character to deliver the sort of righteously indignant speeches you expect from this genre. But courtroom dramas are notoriously dull affairs, and this doesn’t give Official Secrets a particularly strong sequence to end on.
Most unfortunate of all, history is still conspiring against the film and its narrative. In March of 2003, George W. Bush simply bypassed the U.N. and sent a bunch of US bombers into Iraq anyway. Bright’s story of international blackmail was alternately ignored and discredited. Gun became a minor footnote in history. Today, everybody more or less knows there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and hardly anybody cares. It would be nice to say that Official Secrets successfully elevates its main character to the same orbit as crusading figures like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. But the script doesn’t give Knightley enough opportunities to construct a full-fledged character with whom we can sympathize. And rather than leaving audiences with the sort of angry, change-the-world resolve they might expect, it ends on a rather anticlimactic and defeatist note. Gun’s story isn’t as thrilling or tragic or uplifiting as you might hope. It’s just a bummer—the exact sort of bummer we’ve come to expect these days from our government. Oh well.
Theaters are closed until further notice
But if you would like a snapshot to help you remember how things used to be…