Firstpost at Sundance: Keira Knightley's Official Secrets is a cautionary tale high on righteous fury, low on drama
Official Secrets tells a timely story about how the world's biggest champions of democracy can just as easily undermine the democratic process if it serves their own selfish interests.
"I will be with you, whatever," were the romantic pop song-like words former British prime minister Tony Blair used in a previously classified memo he wrote to then US president George W Bush in 2002, to reaffirm his unconditional support for the American invasion of Iraq. The infamous Bush apologist wrote the memo eight months before the US orchestrated the invasion under false pretenses — and well before UN weapons inspectors had completed their ultimately futile search for WMDs, which Bush claimed Saddam Hussein's Iraq still possessed.
Gavin Hood's political thriller Official Secrets, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2019, is not about this particular memo. But it's about another equally infuriating one, leaked around the same period, which will surely get you worked up all over again at the shocking governmental abuse of power. It is a memo which showed just how low Blair's government had stooped to bolster America's deceitful argument for war, in its lead-up. And Hood's film tells the true story of a brave woman who tried her best to halt Bush and Blair’s march to war.
Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, Official Secrets is a one-woman-taking-on-the-system drama about Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a 28-year-old translator for the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters, aka GCHQ. Gun blew the whistle on an NSA memo, which requested GCHQ's help in eavesdropping on key delegates — and potential swing votes — at the UN Security Council to pressure (read: blackmail) them into voting for a mandate that would justify and approve the Iraq invasion. After leaking the memo to an anti-war activist friend (who then passes it on to the press), Gun was fired from her job, arrested and faced trial under the Official Secrets Act. It also has disastrous ramifications on her domestic life as the government retaliates by even threatening to deport her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee from Turkey seeking asylum in England.
Official Secrets tells a timely story about how the world's biggest champions of democracy can just as easily undermine the democratic process if it serves their own selfish interests. While enough has been written, said, documented and filmed about the underhand tactics employed by the US and the UK to feed their appetite for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's important we remember those who took a stand for their convictions even if it meant being imprisoned for what could be deemed unpatriotic. Before we got to the current Trump-May hell, it is equally important to remember the cripplingly dysfunctional administrations that got us here.
Only, you wish Hood wasn't so methodical and measured in his direction as the film is filled with a lot of righteous fury, but not enough engaging drama. The script often feels too dry and didactic, slipping between over-editorialising and fact-spouting. Of course, Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian do a solid job with the music and make sure you are rooted to the story even when its loses its focus.
Though he elicits an unforgettable performance from Knightley, it feels like Hood gets distracted by the need to give more screentime to the movie's other stars — Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes and Matthew Goode. Knightley's character is the movie's soul and spirit. But he wants to tell us about the noble actions of the reporters and the human rights lawyers as if what they did took as much guts and self-sacrifice as she did. He often spends so much time with these supporting characters that you tend to forget the story is about Gun.
In the opening scene of the film, as Gun is sitting at home and watching the news, she calls out Blair on the bogus search for WMDs in Iraq, saying “Just because you’re Prime Minster, it doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts!” The entire audience at Eccles Theatre in Park City bursts out laughing, as it brings to mind one such serial offender sitting in the Oval Office of the White House presently.
Gun's cautionary tale is one of heroism in the face of fearsome, powerful adversary. Her actions may have been futile as the US invaded Iraq anyway. But if more people like her had a conscience and spoken out, the war could have been averted. "I don’t know if I have the courage to do what she did. We don’t speak out for fear of losing our jobs. This young lady, however naive you think she was at the time, spoke up at the risk of losing not only her job but her freedom. So whether you agree with what she did or don’t, I don’t think you can say she wasn’t brave,” Hood said during the Q&A, following the film's premiere.
We have enough armchair dissenters and social media warriors in the world. What we need are people brave enough to act in accordance with their ideals and values.
Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma
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