There’s a horror at the heart of Official Secrets, Gavin Hood’s docudrama about British whistleblower Katharine Gun, but it’s not about what happened, or nearly happened, to Gun or to her husband Yasar. The real horror of this film is the realization, which Gun comes to belatedly, that the truth not only will not set you free, but doesn’t matter in the least, at least when dealing with powerful institutions. George Orwell understood this—when 2 + 2 can equal 5 or 3 or whatever the state says it equals, then reality is beside the point—and those of us living in the United States for the past few years have had plenty of chances to understand it as well.
A little backstory may be in order, since Gun’s story is not that well known in the United States. In addition, the events in this film need to be understood in their historical context and free of the justifiable layers of cynicism which have since accumulated regarding the actions of the United States and some other nations in the Iraq War.
In 2003, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) was working as a translator at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), an intelligence agency under the wing of the Secretary of State of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. In the course of her work, she comes across a memo revealing that the National Security Agency (of the United States) is requesting assistance in a blatantly illegal operation to bug the United Nations offices of six countries that could swing a UN Security Council vote to approve the invasion of Iraq.
A typical office drone would simply have ignored the memo and gone about her work, but the idealistic Gun is horrified by this glimpse at the behind-the-scenes workings of the American war machine. Like Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon, she feels that she’s just seen the actual works of life, and can’t simply go on living as she had before. So, Gun leaks the memo to a friend active in the antiwar movement, and eventually it comes to the notice of Martin Bright (Matt Smith) of The Observer. After verifying its authenticity as best he can, Bright arranges to have it published it on the front page of his paper (complete with an embarrassing mistake that will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt double-crossed by a spell-checker).
The British government is not pleased, of course, and conducts a heavy-handed investigation into the source of the leak. Gun confesses, largely to spare her coworkers the ordeal of repeated interrogations, and is charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. Fair enough, but they also threaten her Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), with deportation, apparently for no better reason than revenge against Gun, since he had nothing to do with her actions.
Official Secrets actually begins in 2004, with Gun on trial, while the main events of her story are told in flashback. There’s plenty of drama inherent in the events of this film, but you’d never know it from the final product. Instead, Hood has created a plodding drama that feels like an extended sequence from a History Channel documentary, and the sheer dullness of this film will prevent it from effectively publicizing Gun’s story, which deserves to be more widely known. The talents of loads of good actors are wasted in Official Secrets, including, beyond those already mentioned, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, and Indira Varma, and while all the technical elements are well done, there’s no spark in any of it. | Sarah Boslaugh