Official Secrets (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A whistleblower charged with treason


“Official Secrets” is a well-intentioned but ultimately mild drama based on the true story of Katharine Gun, a British woman who was an employee of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) around the time when she decided to leak a secret memo from National Security Agency (NSA) in US for stopping the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While it is certainly ready to show and tell us how wrong the invasion of Iraq was as well how courageous Gun was, the movie feels rather pedestrian at times, and I was only surprised a bit by how her unjust plight eventually ended.

After the opening scene showing Gun, played by Keira Knightley, at her trial in 2004, the movie promptly moves back to her another usual working day in GCHQ in 2003. While she begins to work along with her several colleagues as usual, they all receive that secret memo from NSA, and it demands GCHQ to search for any information which may be used to manipulate a number of delegates in the United Nations Security Council. The council is recently tasked to vote on a resolution regarding the invasion of Iraq being planned by the American government with the assistance from the British government, and it looks like the American government is quite determined to get the resolution by any means necessary for justifying its invasion of Iraq in advance.

As a person opposing to the invasion of Iraq as much as many other people in UK and numerous other countries around the world, Gun comes to believe that this illegal spying operation demanded by NSA must be exposed in public, but she also knows well that she must be really careful and discreet in leaking that memo in public. She sends the copy of the memo to an activist friend of hers, and that friend later hands it to some anti-war journalist, who subsequently gives it to Martin Bright (Matt Smith), one of the journalists working in the Observer.


When Bright shows the copy of the memo to his editor and colleagues, many of them are understandably skeptical at first, but they soon come to discern that they have a very credible evidence after checking it through various experts and sources. For example, Bright’s fellow journalist Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) confirms that a man behind the memo really works in NSA, and Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), another close colleague of Bright, gets an indirect confirmation on that illegal spying operation from a friend/source of his, who incidentally works in MI6.

As Bright and his colleagues in the Observer delve further into their highly sensitive matter, the mood accordingly becomes as tense as, say, “All the President’s Men” (1976), but the screenplay by director Gavin Hood and his co-writers Gregory and Sara Bernstein, which is based on “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War” by Marcia & Thomas Mitchell, does not generate much narrative momentum as ponderously moving from one plot point to another. You may appreciate how it diligently tries to present its big picture via various pieces of information popping up from here and there, but its big picture will not surprise you much considering how much we know about the Invasion of Iraq now, and the eventual publication of Bright’s article does not feel as dramatically impactful as intended.

While Bright and his colleagues in the Observer unfortunately face a big setback due to an absurd mistake in their published article, Gun confronts the dire consequence of her action. Once the article is published, everyone at her workplace is thoroughly investigated, and, of course, there eventually comes a point where she decides that enough is enough. After she confesses to her superiors, she is arrested for a breach on the Official Secrets Act as expected, and that is just the beginning of her predicament during next several months. She can have lawyers to defend her at the upcoming trial, but she is notified that she is not allowed to discuss with her lawyers on anything involved with her work at GCHQ, and that certainly puts her and her lawyers in a very disadvantageous position.

officialsecrets04.jpgIt seems that she should plead guilty for getting some leniency from a judge to preside over her trial, but Gun firmly sticks to her position because she believes she did a right thing for her country as well as thousands of people to be affected by the invasion of Iraq, though her action and Bright’s article did not change anything to their disappointment and frustration. While he initially does not see much chance for Gun, Gun’s barrister Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) later comes to see that there is actually a possible way for defending her, and, what do you know, there comes a very unexpected turn during her trial.

I was disappointed a bit with the following anti-climactic ending of the film, but I enjoyed the performances of its several notable cast members, who did as much as they could for filling their respective positions. While Keira Knightley is credible in her character’s growing anxiety and conflict along the story, Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans bring some colorful personality to their rather thankless roles, and the same thing can be said about Ralph Fiennes, who is as unflappable as required during his few key moments in the movie.

Although I was not that bored during my viewing, “Official Secrets” does not succeed much in making its story as compelling or enlightening as I hoped, and it is a minor letdown compared to Gavin’s better works such as “Tsosti” (2005), which garnered him a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and “Eye in the Sky” (2015). Sure, its story and subjects are still relevant, but the movie merely delivers facts and details, and that is all.


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