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Strong Performances Captivate in OFFICIAL SECRETS, a Morality Tale in the Age of Whistleblowers

30 December 2019

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Strong Performances Captivate in OFFICIAL SECRETS, a Morality Tale in the Age of Whistleblowers

The true story of a British whistleblower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Adam Bakri, MyAnna Buring

Year: 2019

Country: UK, USA

Language: English

Runtime: 112 minutes


Beneath the film’s admittedly forgettable title and generic poster lies an important and infuriating reminder about the dark corners of international politics, and one woman’s determination to stand against injustice amidst it all. Official Secrets tells the true story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a British whistleblower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation meant to strong-arm members of the UN Security Council to legitimise America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

The film’s plot splits into two. We follow Katherine’s emotional journey as she becomes a whistleblower, and the investigative work of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and his colleagues, whom the leaked information landed with. Yes, the subject matter is a daunting ask – especially with the intricacies of international law and politics being the film’s omnipresent wallpaper – but Official Secrets never fails to keep the audience in the loop through clear and concise explanations. 

With everyone constantly keyed in, Official Secrets proceeds to focus on the human drama of its lead, Katherine. The film makes a constant point to highlight how courage is never straightforward – an exploration that I enjoyed. Here, her personal convictions are in constant entanglement with the people around her, such as with how it gives authorities plenty of reasons to manufacture excuses to deport her Kurdish husband, Yasar. Knightley’s measured performance as Katherine captivatingly works the audience through the whole gamut of emotions, responding to the bureaucratic hell she goes through with both sobering fear and the courage to overcome it. 

However, there are definitely missteps in the film’s dramatisation efforts. The score works in constant favour of the narrative, swelling to emphasise the tense and emotional while leaving sparse instrumentation for the rest. This doubling down works when the narrative does, but produces dissonating results when the narrative doesn’t. Examples include the puzzling overdramatisation of Katherine mailing a letter, and an out-of-place sequence where she speeds down highways looking for her husband. These did suck out much of the organic tension provided by the otherwise solid script. But these are sparse and far in-between, where the dramatisation mostly works to keep Katherine’s story engaging without sacrificing too much of reality.

On the other front, the telling of the journalists’ journey, led by Martin, in verifying and investigating the leaked information is wondrous and exciting as we accompany their trek through the various twists and turns. Whether it is portraying Doctor Who or Prince Phillips, Matt Smith continues to charm here with his boyish looks and passionate deliveries. Within this subplot, Conleth Hill shines with his flashy performance of Roger Alton, the no-nonsense editor of the newspaper, motivated by nothing more than the chase of a good news story. Filled with likeable characters all around, the subplot is an enjoyable yet ultimately brief respite from the constant despair of Katherine’s story. 

Director Gavin Hood fills each frame of Official Secrets with gloomy hues and just enough creative cinematographic flair to separate it from being a made-for-streaming or television affair. Clear attention to set design is much appreciated, fully transporting the audience to the alien world of 2003 where giant computer screens and analog televisions dominated the office space. 

Where the film suffers is with its position in an overly saturated market of political dramas, with little to no standout moments or features. While no fault of the film, this is further accentuated by the conclusion of Katherine’s story that felt more like a whimper than a triumph. While an enjoyable journey, I felt that there just wasn’t enough oomph in the narrative that stayed with me after the credits rolled. And there are only so many similar flavours of “I want my countrymen to know the truth!” speeches by Knightley I can stomach before tuning out.

Nevertheless, Official Secrets is a solid film that, in the wake of fellow whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, painfully reminds its audience that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The performances and sharp scripts are well-worth the price of admission, but there isn’t really enough here to warrant repeat viewings or, frankly, a strong recommendation. 

Catch Official Secrets in theatres now. Watch the trailer to the political drama below:

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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