Quantcast
become a Patreon patron

maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

Official Secrets movie review: blow all the whistles

Official Secrets green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Not a spy thriller but a story of emotional and intellectual suspense wrangling with matters of patriotism and of conscience, and of just how far journalism’s watchdog role can and should take it.

part of my Movies for the Resistance series
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good lefty drama; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

I’m not sure what’s most interesting — in the Chinese sense of the word — about Official Secrets. Is it that a straight-up docudrama about a hot-button topic such as anti-war whistleblowing powered by stars including Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, and Matt Smith is now considered a niche arthouse release in America? (Would All the President’s Men go straight to VOD in 2019? Probably. Looks like Secrets is getting a wide release in the UK, at least.) Is it that WMDs continue to remain unfound in Iraq, and that there continues to be no justification for the still-not-ended post-9/11 war in the Middle East, almost 20 years later? Is it that we seem to have forgotten some of the biggest mass protests in history, which spanned the globe yet which failed to have any impact on stopping the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Or is it that the only people who ever seem to face any consequences connected to the war are those who took matters directly into their own hands, as a matter of patriotic duty, integrity, and basic humanity, and blew whatever whistle they could?

Official Secrets Matt Smith

Doing a journalism (in case you forgot what that looked like)…

Enter Katharine Gun. She was working as a translator for British intelligence organization GCHQ when she received a mass email from a higher-up — one that Official Secrets seems to suggest was perhaps sent so widely only by mistaken — requesting, basically, that GCHQ employees help gin up evidence to support a Western-coalition invasion of Iraq. Gun leaked the email to the newspaper The Observer, where journalist Martin Bright exposed it, because she was appalled by this attempted misuse of the talent and the professionalism of her and her fellow GCHQ employees. “I work for the British people,” Knightley’s (The Aftermath, Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge) Gun says later, by way of justifying herself. “I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.”

Director Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is following up his previous film, 2016’s Eye in the Sky — another look at the ethics of modern warfare — with a sharp, smart tale of moral dilemmas, the limits of governmental secrecy, and, ultimately, the vital necessity that decency and principle are worth standing up for. Official Secrets is not a spy thriller; it’s a story of emotional and intellectual suspense as Gun wrangles with her patriotism and her conscience while making the decision to leak. There’s a hearty side dish of similar debates on the journalistic side; Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Terminator Genisys) as Bright is joined by Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) and Rhys Ifans (Snowden, Alice Through the Looking Glass) as fellow journos working on the story and wondering just how far their watchdog role can and should take them.

Official Secrets Keira Knightley

TFW the all-hands-on-deck office meeting isn’t about sussing out who burned popcorn in the microwave again…

The bit of intrigue here — as when Gun visits an antiwar activist friend (MyAnna Buring: Lost in Karastan, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2) for advice on how to proceed with her leak, which takes place on the friend’s farm, a nicely remote place where surveillance is unlikely — are quietly shocking reminders that aspects of the dystopias of, say, Children of Men or the recent BBC/HBO series Years and Years are not in our future but have already been here for quite some time. But mostly Secrets brings the dystopia straight into the realm of the domestic and cosy, the personal and intimate: Gun curled up on her sofa watching Colin Powell on TV making his case to the UN for the invasion of Iraq, and raging over it, echoes what many a thinking, feeling, politically engaged citizen felt at that same moment. We all knew Powell was spouting bullshit, but Gun knew it. And she was able to do something concrete about it.

Gun’s leak does not remain secret for long; Fiennes (The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, The White Crow) plays the lawyer who defends her as she is dragged into court. I won’t reveal how that plays out… but there’s a wonderful irony in it, and it offers a genuine boost for others perhaps in a position like Gun’s right now. Basically: Blow all the whistles that need blowing.


Official Secrets is the Debate Gala film at 2019 BFI London Film Festival, screening on October 10th, 11th, and 13th.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.



If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

Pin It on Pinterest