Whistleblowing is a difficult decision. You are part of an organization, and you believe in that organization. Speaking out against that organization (yes, I know I’m overusing the word) at times can seem like ratting out family. Not to mention the downside. We all say that there will not be reprisal for whistleblowing, but more often than not, there is. However, that doesn’t mean that if you see wrongdoing that you should sit idly by and do nothing. Most believe that inaction is as bad as committing the act yourself. But when the organization you are speaking out against is the United States government, that is another animal entirely. Official Secrets portrays the real-life actions of Katherine Gun, a translator who back in 2003 leaked classified information exposing a conspiracy to facilitate the war against Iraq. Keira Knightly portrays our whistleblower with an all-star cast that includes Matthew Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, and Ralph Fiennes.
A key factor with this biographical adaptation is historical accuracy. There are always some aspect that are sensationalized to make the story more interesting and engaging. I did some research, and as near as I can tell this portrayal is pretty accurate of the events that transpired; even the names are accurate. Katherine Gun worked worked for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a British intelligence agency. During her employment, she received an email from a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official requesting aid in a secret and illegal operation to bug the United Nations offices of six nations: Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Pakistan. The purpose of the clandestine operation was to gain leverage over these countries to force their support to prompt the United Nations Security Council to approve the invasion of Iraq.
Outraged by this plan, Katherine made a copy of the email and leaked it to the press. An investigation into the leak was launched, and Katherine ultimately confessed. The bulk of the film covers what came after her confession. Katherine spent months in limbo while the government decided whether or not to press charges against her for her violation of the Official Secrets Act of 1989 (Hence the name, Official Secrets). I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, so I will leave it that.
In regards to the story, it is a bit a dry. I gave it points for staying true to what really happened, but as we all have learned: life is rarely as exciting as fantasy. Part of what brings the story down is how long is spent building up to the leaking of the email. Granted, this is historically accurate, as public record shows that it took two months between her leaking the document and the story being published. On film it just feels like the story is dragging on and jumping from multiple perspectives. Truth be told, much of the talent in this film is wasted simply because there is not enough screen time for everyone.
For example, Rhys Ifans’ character was unnecessary in my opinion, though very entertaining. Ifans’ impassioned moments made for the only moments of comic relief in the entire story. That said, his contributions to the film amount to little more than a cameo appearance. In the beginning I expected him to be a bigger part of the plot, and then he disappeared for much of the movie. When he reappears on camera, I was like, “Wow, I forget he was in this movie.” Though it would not have been accurate, I would have combined the Ifans, Goode, and Smith characters into one entity and allowed Smith to play that character, as he is obviously the main focus of the subplot.
This was an interesting story to tell, as it is the first time that I found myself empathizing with someone that leaked classified information. I do not claim to approve or condone her actions, but I can see her perspective, and based on what I saw, her motivations were pure. She was trying to prevent a perceived injustice. On that basis, I was happy with the outcome. I do wish that Knightly was more impassioned when she was conveying that, as I found her portrayal a bit muted. The scene stealer was definitely Fiennes as the creative lawyer who takes on her case. At first he came off as standoffish, but he quickly warmed and became the central character, taking the spotlight away from Knightly.
Though I do not believe that Official Secrets is destined to win the box office, it is an interesting film if you enjoy historical accuracy and movies about whistleblowing. The cast is top-notch if underutilized. History buffs are likely to be pleased.