A compelling performance by Keira Knightley and a suspenseful screenplay with direction to match make “Official Secrets” an important addition to revelations about the duplicity that plunged America and Britain into the deadly misbegotten Iraq War.
The film, directed by Gavin Hood from a screenplay by Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein and Hood, is based on a true story as told in the book “The Spy Who Tried To Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion,” by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell.
The excellent Knightley plays Gun, who becomes upset by a memo she sees while employed in London at Government Communications Headquarters. The memo reveals Washington efforts to involve Britain into pressuring and blackmailing members of the U. N. Security Council into endorsing the war based on what turned out to be false accusations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The film is given credence by inserting real clips, such as those of Colin Powell giving false assurances to the U.N. Having seen the memo, Gun is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand she believes the memo should be made public. On the other she will be violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act. She follows her conscience and gets the memo to a friend, who in turn tips off a journalist with the Guardian newspaper.
There are interesting scenes in the Guardian offices depicting arguments about whether to go public with such a story. Is it accurate? Can the paper stand by it? Some levity is included in the arguments and personalities involved before the Guardian breaks the explosive story.
What the film eventually boils down to is the case against Gun and what decisions she must make. Should she plead guilty and take her punishment? Is there any legal way out for this woman who blew the whistle on immoral actions to justify an immoral war?
Ralph Fiennes has a key role as Ben Emmerson, who becomes Gun’s smart and candid lawyer. He levels with her as to options as he seeks a legal way to keep her from a prison sentence. The film works up the needed suspense and audience sympathy for Gun, enhanced by Knightley’s stalwart deeply human and convincing performance. The court scenes add to the tension. There is also an excellent supporting cast, including Rhys Ifans, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Indira Varma and Shaun Dooley.
Thanks to all concerned, “Official Secrets” is an entertaining and intelligent thriller that grasps our attention and also contributes importantly to the mass of evidence that the war that killed so many people was unconscionable. It also stresses the need for people to stand up and follow their principles even at the great personal risks that come to whistleblowers. Keira Knightly leaves us with an indelible impression as one such heroic individual. An IFC Films release. Reviewed August 30, 2019.