LFF 2019 Film Review: Official Secrets ★★★

Headlining the London Film Festival’s Debate strand is Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets, the true life tale of a British whistleblower who tried to stop the Iraq war, and one horrendous use of spell check.

The collection of British acting talent here is an impressive and interesting mix. Keira Knightley stars as Katharine Gun, a translator at GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), who leaked a memo to the press showing the US Government was spying on U.N. diplomats with the aim of rigging a vote. Doing so put her in breach of the Official Secrets Act, branding her a traitor to the United Kingdom.

Matt Smith plays journalist Martin Bright at The Observer, who would eventually break the story, along with Matthew Goode’s earnest Peter Beaumont (The Observers’ foreign affairs editor) and Conleth Hill’s combative editor Roger Alton. The three are basically exposition machines, joining the dots for the audience. Rhys Ifans eats the scenery playing Ed Vulliamy (a loud and opinionated investigative journalist). Ralph Fiennes gets to be imperious as Ben Emmerson, Gun’s lawyer. They’re all roles these actors can do on autopilot.

The film plays out very traditionally, from Gun’s unease at the internal memo, her decision to leak it and the paranoia that settles in once it hit the front pages. The screenplay (credited to Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein and Gavin Hood) goes to great lengths to connect all the dots and make absolutely sure you know what is happening and what is at stake. Some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose. At one point Bright meets a contact in an underground parking garage saying, “it’s a bit Deep Throat, don’t you think?” Yes, yes I do.

The film’s real stand out moment is one taken directly from real life. As The Observer was under attack for publishing the memo, it appeared for a moment they had been caught in a hoax, the memo was reportedly from an American source, but used British spelling. The ensuing drama is possibly the most British mistake I’ve seen on screen all year.

Characters keep doing those silly things people only do in movies. Saying “hello?” when someone’s hung up, constantly repeating things to make sure the audience has caught on, or having dastardly henchmen obviously tailing Gun; the lack of subtly oozes from every pore of the film.

But it’s not trying to be subtle, it’s trying to be a political thriller with a modern message. The film opens with Gun watching Tony Blair on TV talking about chemical weapons as she stares on in disbelief. “He just keeps repeating the lie!” she says – gosh, it’s like she’s commenting on Trump!

Official Secrets is slick and entertaining and manages to make a story about journalism and sitting around waiting feel dramatic which is no mean feat. Ultimately, it’s quite literally “much ado about nothing” as Blair and Bush push ahead with the Iraq war without a U.N. resolution. Gun ultimately failed in her goal, but her actions speak volumes about standing up against a bully government. Like I said, the message isn’t subtle, but it’s important.

By Chad Armstrong

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