Review: Keira Knightley is Fantastic in ‘Official Secrets,’ an Otherwise Surprisingly Dull Whistleblower Drama about the Iraq War
Excuse me if I’m being uncharacteristically cynical here, but: I wonder when these based-on-real-life whistleblower movies will matter. This is a dramatic genre that has featured some fantastic performances in recent years (Rachel Weisz in, well, The Whistleblower, about sexual abuse and trafficking within United Nations missions, and Matt Damon going wacky in The Informant!), and Oliver Stone’s particular brand of conspiracy-obsessed zeal was served well in Snowden. But do these movies penetrate the public consciousness anymore, or did we somehow collectively decide that Russell Crowe’s The Insider was the last time we would pay attention? Guys, remember when Benedict Cumberbatch starred in a Julian Assange movie? I mean!
What I mean to say with all this is that I think these movies are often effectively-if-flatly made, and they serve an important purpose in that they educate and entertain, and I hope that when people watch them, they learn something. (I just wonder, you know, if people do watch them.) And all of my broad genre observations are applicable, too, to Official Secrets, in which Keira Knightley plays British whistleblower Katharine Gun, who leaked a secret memo that the NSA sent to the British government after Sept. 11, outlining the corrupt (and goddamn illegal) ways they would go about gathering support for their decision to invade Iraq (or, if you want my personal thoughts, engage in war crimes for which they have never been held responsible).
Knightley is evocative here of her turn in A Dangerous Method as a woman driven to increasingly desperate behavior; she bites her lip and chews the inside of her mouth and emotes “I am concerned” from the way she folds in on herself while watching the news to how rigidly she sits in front of her computer at work. She is principled and she is indignant and she is angry, and we all know, from Bend It Like Beckham to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to Colette, how great Knightley can be when working in that lane.
But she’s let down by almost every other aspect of Gavin Hood’s film, which is curiously, exhaustingly flat. There’s no sense of tension or thrill here; no propulsive thrust forward. Criticize Oliver Stone all you want—you should; it’s fine!—but Snowden had an exceptionally anxious energy about it that belied the danger Edward Snowden was placing himself in. Official Secrets barely communicates that to us, relying too often on official news footage and an overly simplistic script (from Hood and Gregory and Sara Bernstein (all working off a book written about Gun by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion) to let us know that Katharine was horrified by the lead-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that British journalists played by Matt Smith and Matthew Goode tried to cover the story but were discouraged from doing so by the newspaper they worked for, and the American government led by President George W. Bush warmongered to cover up their lies. If you lived through this period of American history and were paying any sort of attention, this is all horrifically unsettling but not necessarily new, and Hood doesn’t do much past “Look at how bad this was” to communicate the material to us.
Honestly, if you want to talk about the endless opportunities provided to white men: Hood’s previous films X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game were clunkers, but I suppose he was brought in for this because of his drone-focused Eye in the Sky, which also addressed questions about government ethics? But I wonder what a female filmmaker’s perspective would have been on Gun’s story about a woman who betrays her own government to try and prevent an international war, who is then basically blackmailed by that government into staying quiet (they tried to deport her husband; that is some underhanded shit), and who must grapple with the fact that the war happened anyway and that thousands and thousands of people were killed and displaced regardless.
The movie hints every so often at that horrendous inner conflict and Knightley’s performance proves she’s up to exploring it, but it’s telling that the film ends not with a scene of Knightley-as-Gun but with Ralph Fiennes’s activist lawyer getting a moment of glory facing off against a federal prosecutor. Official Secrets tries to end with a sort of declarative moment proving its own relevance, but the real-life story of how thoroughly the world ignored Gun’s warning is too depressing to allow that scene any emotional impact. We already know how awfully everything turned out: Swathes of the Middle East are utterly destroyed as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which helped destabilize the region enough that ISIS was created and the Syrian Civil War began. Our current president owes Bush a profound debt for lowering the standards of what the American people will accept in their leadership. Surveillance has only expanded, not only from our governments but also from private companies who track all our data—and who are regularly hacked. We’re living that nightmarish reality right now. How Official Secrets tries to put a tidy bow on this narrative does Gun’s story and our own awareness of the world around us a disservice.
Official Secrets opens in limited release around the U.S. on Sept. 6.
Image sources (in order of posting): IFC Films, IFC Films, IFC Films