It isn’t another “All the President’s Men,” but “Official Secrets” tartly brings to life a sorry episode from a time of scoundrels. That time was 2003, when the United States marched enthusiastically into a war with Iraq.
Maybe you don’t remember it that way; these days everybody seems to think the Iraq War was a mistake (“the single worst decision ever made,” according to our current POTUS). But at the time, the gung-ho spirit in the U.S. was so intense that skeptical voices had their patriotism questioned.
Things were more mixed with America’s allies, including the British. But Prime Minister Tony Blair drove the U.K. into full support of the war effort, which is where “Official Secrets” comes in. This British film does a clean, devastating job of laying out the ways that, as the central character puts it, “we were lied into an illegal war.”
The story, based on fact, begins with Katharine Gun (played by a grave, fine Keira Knightley), an intelligence translator with Government Communications Headquarters. She receives an email from a mysterious American at the National Security Agency, blatantly suggesting illicit tactics for strong-arming United Nations members into support for the war.
Gun slipped the email to an activist friend, who got it to the Observer newspaper. When it was printed, a firestorm broke out, and Gun found herself facing criminal charges.
Other sorts of threats ensued, including the possibility that Gun’s Turkish-born husband (Adam Bakri) would be deported on bogus charges. The film indulges in melodrama at times, including a meeting in a parking garage that prompts the participants to notice the similarities to “All the President’s Men.”
But for the most part, director Gavin Hood (of the Oscar-winning South African film “Tsotsi”) keeps the narrative bopping from one procedural point to the next. Knightley is the biggest star in the film, and she does a wonderful job of using body language to convey Gun’s essentially modest manner. But she’s also off-screen for large sections of “Official Secrets,” because this is an ensemble piece, picking up characters who play small or large roles along the way.
Matt Smith (from “The Crown”) and Rhys Ifans play journalists on the hunt, and Ralph Fiennes brings his suave authority as the head of Gun’s legal team. Even the small roles are filled out by reliably tasty British actors such as Matthew Goode, Jeremy Northam and Indira Varma.
I’ve read complaints that the film is basically a series of scenes of people talking in rooms. You bet it is. And when geopolitics and the lives of thousands hang in the balance (not to mention the principle of whistle-blowing), the talk in those rooms holds enormous potency.
I found the film’s forward motion very compelling. It bottles up its outrage so the scenes unfold with simmering power—call it British reserve, if you like. But it sure does the trick here.
“Official Secrets” 3½ stars
Based on the true story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), the British intelligence translator who blew the whistle on illicit tactics meant to strong-arm UN approval for the Iraq War. Gavin Hood’s film bottles up its outrage so the talking-head scenes come alive in enormously potent ways. With Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter