Movie Review: Official Secrets (2019)

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As young British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun in Official Secrets, Keira Knightley tries to stop an illegal war when she receives a mind-blowing NSA e-mail in the 2003 lead-up to the invasion of Iraq that might as well have been titled "Blackmail Help Wanted."

Alarmed to find the United States requesting Britain's assistance in gathering dirt on members of the UN Security Council that they could then use to force those representatives to vote in favor of the war in the Middle East, the previously unassuming, twenty-something translator knows she can't just sit back and watch her country begin the march toward an unjust war.

Bound by the Official Secrets Act, which makes it illegal to disclose the intelligence she comes across at her job, Gun risks everything when she leaks the memo through an intermediary to the prominent British newspaper The Observer, and becomes a whistleblower in the process.

A fascinating true story that — perhaps for obvious reasons — received little to no mention in the United States, Rendition and Eye in the Sky director Gavin Hood's Official Secrets had all the makings of a successful political drama, which makes this drearily shot and dully paced end result all the more disappointing.

An ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary situation who let her conscience be her guide and stood firm even when the government threatened her family, Gun is an admirable figure both in real life and on paper. And that is precisely why it's such a shame that she's turned into a one dimensional placeholder for political speak onscreen. Revealing very little about Gun as either a woman or a spy, although the usually stellar Knightley excels during a few brief moments of speechifying, far too often she sleepwalks throughout Secrets in a woefully underwritten role.

In fact, not knowing exactly what to do with the everywoman hero at the heart of the film, Official Secrets only springs to life when it changes points-of-view away from Gun. Illustrating the ways in which it might’ve worked better as a thriller, we find ourselves completely caught up when the film focuses on both the trio of newspapermen at The Observer who published the shocking front page story just seventeen days before the U.S. invaded Iraq and the human rights lawyer who eventually took Gun’s case.

Trying to hit all the high points as a faithful chronicle of events without building any real connection to the actual architects behind the action (except in one nerve-wracking scene where Gun tries to track down her husband when retaliation by the government hits close to home), this workmanlike effort plays best as a cinematic equivalent to Cliffs Notes.

Leaving the cast floundering with an emotionally staccato script by Hood alongside husband and wife team Sara and Gregory Bernstein, which was based upon based upon Thomas and Marcia Mitchell's 2008 book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, Official Secrets lacks both the humanism that drew us into Hood's politically driven Rendition as well as a strong narrative arc.

A nonetheless eye-opening and still timely saga that — from a historical perspective alone — is sure to spark the curiosity of American viewers who are largely unfamiliar with Gun's actions, regrettably there's nothing about Hood's interpretation that elevates Official Secrets beyond the level of an average, interchangeable made for premium cable movie you're likely to see at home on Saturday nights.

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