Before you think Official Secrets is just the most generically titled movie of the year, know that it does take its moniker from the Official Secrets Act of 1989, where the UK enacted policies to keep state secrets under wraps from the public, with penalties for breaching it resulting in severe jail time. Basically, it’s just typical shady lawmaking so that governments can do whatever they want without having to answer to public scrutiny.
In 2003, however, a British intelligence translator named Katharine Gun leaked top secret information to the press exposing illegal blackmail techniques the US were utilizing against United Nations diplomats in order to push for the war in Iraq. All Gun wanted to do was prevent an unnecessary war that would cause countless deaths; instead, she was put through the most hellish year of her life.
And now comes the inevitable prestige movie adaptation of it, directed by Gavin Hood, who has somehow become Hollywood’s go-to guy for exposés about the war on terror ever since breaking out with his South African Academy Award winner Tsotsi in 2006. Like Rendition (which took a “hard look” at suspected terrorists being illegally detained and confined overseas) and Eye in the Sky (which took a “hard look” at drone strikes) beforehand, Official Secrets takes a “hard look” at issues of privacy and whether the public has a right to know everything that their government is up to (the answer: yes, obviously).
Keira Knightley plays Katharine like a wounded bird, as she repeatedly gets struck down by the suffocating reach of the people in charge of her home country after simply trying to do the right thing. As the courts threaten her with lengthy prison sentences and the tenuous citizenship of her refugee husband is pulled away, she gets a shocking taste of the Big Brother-like persecution that comes with meddling with the forces at the top. Along the way, she gets help from a plucky trio of reporters (played the familiar Brit face group of Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Rhys Ifans) and her determined human rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes, to add that final bit of prestige gravitas).
Official Secrets is handsomely made and it’s hard not to get swept up in the rousing story of a woman fighting against a corrupt system. As entertainment, it’s not bad, with Hood creating a few tense scenes out of Katharine’s increasingly oppressed and paranoid state of mind. But who is this movie really for other than bourgeois audiences who like political thrillers with starry faces and a superficial semblance of “reality”?
Hood and company look back on an important real life event that shone a light on the sneaky, not to mention downright unnerving, inner workings of the systems entrusted to make the public safe, but to what end? Things are obviously way worse now than they even were in the horrendous Bush/Iraq age and there’s no real link explored between the two periods other than a throwaway joke where Katharine blurts out angrily that presidents can’t just make up facts because they’re in charge (har har).
Unlike a film like BlacKkKlansman, say, that uses a past event to reckon with the chaos of the present, Official Secrets wants to present some old wrongdoings and then leave them there, while we pat ourselves on the back for suddenly being enlightened on how corrupt political systems are. Look around you, people.