movie review

Official Secrets Is a Low-key, Paranoid Procedural Drama Done Well

Photo: Nick Wall/IFC Films

Bloody hell, the Brits do low-key, paranoid procedural dramas like Official Secrets well, with a pervading chill and no flash: The crispness cuts like a knife. In this one, set in 2003 and 2004, pasty white men debate whether a whistle-blower, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), is a hero or a traitor for leaking a memo from the U.S. directing the U.K.’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) to dig up dirt on members of the U.N. Security Council. The directive in itself is sleazy, but it’s the endgame that’s monstrous. The G.W. Bush administration has an inkling that no matter how much fake intel it peddles about Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda and his supposed biological/nuclear weapons of mass destruction, few besides Bush lapdog Tony Blair will sanction an invasion of Iraq. Other countries in the U.N. Security Council will need a wee push. An intelligence analyst, Gun finds the rationale for war not merely preposterous but immoral, not to mention illegal. When that memo — written by a shadowy NSA figure named Frank Koza — appears on her computer screen, her jaw drops.

Knightley has a strong jaw to drop. Slack, it signals dismay, sometimes outright hopelessness. Set, it signals gumption. In Official Secrets, it’s slack and set seriatim. Combine this with eyes that water more often than blink and you have an indelible portrait of a conscience in torment. How can Gun not share that memo, with millions of lives (British, American, and Iraqi) at stake? Gun knows that if she’s discovered she’d be prosecuted under the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act of 1989, and that her Muslim husband Yasar’s immigration status would be at risk. (Yasar is a Kurd, and Kurds were Saddam’s most notorious victims, so it’s not as if she has an allegiance to the Ba’athist regime. She has an anti-allegiance.) There are so many reasons not to copy the memo, not to slip it to an anti-war ex-colleague who’d slip it to an anti-war activist who’d slip it to a journalist … She should just keep her head down and do her job.

We know from the get-go that she didn’t. Official Secrets opens with Gun in the dock, having emerged through a private staircase into the center of a courtroom full of white men in wigs. She is asked, “How do you plead?” She opens her mouth and then the titles say, “One Year Earlier.” So, there’s no suspense over whether she’ll leak the memo or be caught — only over how it all goes down and what will come 90 minutes later, when we arrive back in that courtroom. Will she plead guilty and accept her sentence — or challenge the government to argue for the war’s legality?

The memo, as it happens, ends up in the offices of the Observer, which is strongly pro-Iraq invasion but seemingly free (in the newsroom, anyway) of Blair loyalists. Bright-eyed Matt Smith is Martin Bright, the reporter who receives and advocates for the publication of the memo. Matthew Goode (hair cut short, in spectacles) is his colleague, Peter Beaumont, who calls in his sources to verify the memo’s accuracy. (No one wants to be hoaxed.) Rhys Ifans in gruff, lumbering, disheveled mode is Ed Vulliamy, the Observer correspondent in America who can’t fucking believe that his superiors would punt given Bush & Co.’s obvious dissembling. Conleth Hill is a treat as the editor, a cynical company man who has to make the ultimate decision to bury the story or risk his paper’s rep. In a long series of scenes (interspersed with Katharine Gun’s ongoing drama), the Observer reporters and editors have furtive meetings in clubs, restaurants, and on tennis courts with men who know something or know someone who knows something. All of those interviewed (deep background) think the memo is real but can only say so with small twitches and non-denials. Have I mentioned how well the Brits do these sorts of scenes? You scan their faces for those twitches, those fleeting instants when their lips press together and cheeks color ever so slightly to signal confirmation.

Ralph Fiennes is the subtlest of them all as the barrister Ben Emmerson, who heads an outfit called Liberty that fights for the civil ones. He joins the film midway through when Katharine has been held in tiny rooms (overhead shot of her tense body on a stiff cot, with only a coat to keep her warm) and followed on buses by men who live to scowl and menace. Fiennes’s lips and pallor incline naturally toward the clammy, so when late in his first meeting with Katharine a faint quarter-smile appears and he says, “You had nothing to gain and everything to lose. I think this speaks rather highly of you,” you want to burst into tears. When he tells her, “We’re here to help,” it’s as if God has finally offered to take off some of the load. All the villains in the film are older white men, so it warms the heart when one comes over to the side of good. Even the man we saw play MI-6’s M and Voldemort thinks Katharine’s a pip.

Those are the film’s most pleasurable moments: when various people tell the bereft, frightened Katharine that she did the right thing and that they’re proud to know her. Daniel Ellsberg gives her a thumbs-up (not on camera but we hear about it, and that name has so much weight). We need that reassurance because the director, Gavin Hood, has plainly studied the work of such directors as Alan Pakula (there’s a Deep Throat joke during a meeting in a parking garage) and knows how to frame Katharine and Matthew Bright and the others to suggest that someone is watching or someone might appear at any moment, even when no one is and no one will. It’s even scarier to think that the events of this movie happened 15 years ago and that surveillance technology has come so much further. I can almost feel my keystrokes being monitored as I write this. Whistle-blower = YES! Katharine Gun HERO. Official Secrets VERY GOOD :) !

Watching the film, you might well realize that Donald Trump is the best thing from a historical perspective that could have happened to George W. Bush. When you see Bush saying the danger from Iraq is imminent — a matter of “weeks, not months” — with his tongue thrust oddly between his lips as if signaling his hunger to invade, it will all come flooding back: how cruel and privileged and criminally reckless he and his enablers were. The irony is that the Koza memo that kicks off Official Secrets didn’t matter: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. decided that they wouldn’t need the U.N.’s authorization. Anyway, the operation would prove a cakewalk!

Katharine Gun, we still need you.

Official Secrets Is a Paranoid Procedural Drama Done Well