Early on in Official Secrets, an outraged Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) glares at her television screen, where England’s then-leader Tony Blair is smoothly attempting to justify his country’s upcoming participation in the Iraq war. “Just because you’re the prime minster doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts!” she sputters in disbelief.
That line got a big, sardonic laugh at the movie’s Sundance premiere earlier this year; we’ve come a long way since 2003, of course, from implicitly trusting our leaders — or at least from experiencing political outrage as a fresh emotion. But Gavin Hood’s earnest whistleblower drama does a stirring if occasionally didactic job of reminding us why speaking truth to power, even at the highest personal cost, still matters.
A Mandarin translator at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, Knightley’s Katharine is a low-key late-twentysomething with a happy marriage to a Kurdish refugee named Yasar (Adam Bakri) and a healthy respect for her job. But when the GCHQ sends out an internal memo essentially asking its employees to gather intelligence that may help Britain — in the service of its big-brother ally, America — blackmail smaller nations into joining a U.N. resolution to proactively take down Saddam Hussein, she balks.
Europeans who witnessed the story in real time as it unfolded in the U.K. will probably be more familiar with what followed, but Gun’s story hardly got the same attention Stateside. So it’s a sort of slow-motion horror show to watch how thuggishly far the government goes to silence her — even as a clutch of unduly charming Brits (including Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, and Rhys Ifans as the journalists who investigate her allegations, and Ralph Fiennes as the lawyer who takes on her case) bring a pleasing sort of familiarity to the screen.
The screenplay, by Hood and writers Sara and Gregory Bernstein, tends to lean a little heavily on the kind of righteous, perfectly calibrated indignation that happens much more often in Aaron Sorkin dramas than in real life, but there’s satisfaction, too, in watching so many good actors do their crisply voweled best with the material. And even as the narrative goes through its sometimes sermonizing paces, it’s hard not to be moved by the singular passion of a woman who effectively dismantled her own life — not just to salve her conscience but to save, as she saw it, the soul of a nation. B