Official Secrets takes us back to a time and place no one is nostalgic about: the run-up to the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. You know, the “weapons of mass destruction” debacle. No one, especially those officials on the wrong side of the argument, is eager to revisit this particular moment in history, but filmmaker Gavin Hood — co-adapting the non-fiction book by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell — is determined to take us down that road anyway. The dramatization of one woman’s courageous resolve to denounce government lies and warmongering, at considerable cost to her, is a morality play for immoral times. If only it were as exciting in Hood’s film as it was on live TV in 2003.
Katharine “Kat” Gun (Keira Knightley) is working as an intelligence translator at the U.K.’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) when she receives an email informing her that the U.S. National Security Agency is rushing to war with Iraq on flimsy grounds and in great haste. Pressure is being applied to members of the U.N. Security Council to go along and ask no questions.
Whistleblower Kat contacts people in the anti-war movement and tries to convince The Observer newspaper that there’s a crime being committed, but the editors are skeptical, and scared, of her awful disclosures. She has stepped in front of a speeding tank on its way to Saddam Hussein’s doorstep but almost no one is willing to hear what she has to say. Eventually Kat is charged, jailed, and tried on charges of violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act. Her only defense is that the war itself is illegal.
Of course, we know now that in fact the war was — and still is, as our country’s longest-running conflict — predicated on a series of lies. So as we watch Kat slowly being crushed under the weight of the war machine we recognize she’s potentially sacrificing herself not only to stop a massively destructive invasion, but get to get to the truth. Knightley, of the clenched jaw and quiet intensity, portrays Ms. Gun as the ideal conscientious objector — dedicated, humorless, and single-minded. The fact that Kat’s husband (Adam Bakri) is a Kurdish Muslim immigrant and thus could be in danger of deportation, only solidifies her determination to fight the power.
Director Hood (Eye in the Sky, Rendition) has made a career telling anti-war stories that might have been more memorable with better writing and more electrifying scene-setting. Nothing especially objectionable about Knightley’s typically urgent portrayal of this brave, righteous soul, supported by the actorly tics of Ralph Fiennes, Conleth Hill, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Hattie Morahan, Ray Panthaki, and Rhys Ifans. But the grim mechanics of Kat’s ordeal coat the putatively thrilling, perilous tale in dull bureaucratic shades of gray from which there is ultimately no recovering. The war in Iraq goes on, and its perpetrators are free to write memoirs and become elder statesmen. Do we really want to be reminded of that?