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"OFFICIAL SECRETS"
(2019) (Keira Knightley, Matt Smith) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A British intelligence translator must contend with the aftermath of leaking of a top-secret memo to outsiders, all in hopes of exposing a wrongdoing and stopping her country from joining the illegal invasion of Iraq.
PLOT:
It's 2003 and Katharine Gun (KEIRA KNIGHTLEY) is a translator who works for Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and listens to conversations in hopes of uncovering plots that could lead to another 9/11 style attack. She's married to cafe worker Yasar Gun (ADAM BAKRI) who's still going through the immigration process to become an official resident of England and is just a worker-bee cog in the overall scheme of government surveillance.

But then she receives a memo that's shared with her workers regarding a request from America's NSA that Britain help spy on certain United Nations delegates in order to obtain embarrassing intel that could be helpful, if necessary, in convincing them to vote in favor of the United States' desire to invade Iraq and take down Saddam Hussein.

Not a fan of such military action to begin with, she's appalled by the gall of such a request and thus decides, with some trepidation, that she must get it to the outside world. Thus, while risking violating Britain's Official Secrets Act, she passes on that memo to an anti-war associate who then gets that to reporter Martin Bright (MATT SMITH) who works for The Observer newspaper.

Realizing he has something potentially big, he tries to convince his editor, Peter Beaumont (MATTHEW GOODE), and the paper's publisher, Roger Alton (CONLETH HILL), that they should investigate the leak and, if proven valid, run a story on it. That sounds like a great idea to fellow journalist Ed Vulliamy (RHYS IFANS) who's never liked the paper's pro-government stance, and thus with his help Martin starts investigating and the story eventually runs.

That puts Katharine on the hot seat as she initially lies about knowing anything about the lead, but eventually confesses to the crime. All of which results in government prosecutor Ken Macdonald (JEREMY NORTHAM) wanting to drop the hammer on her and make an example of such illegal whistleblowing, all while his former associate, Ben Emmerson (RALPH FIENNES), decides -- knowing full well the long odds facing them -- to defend her in court.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
There's a scene in Rob Reiner's terrific "An American President" where Michael Douglas' President Shepherd has just ordered a military strike and is now addressing his inner circle team. The dialogue is as follows:

President Andrew Shepherd: What I did tonight was not about political gain.

Leon: Yes sir. But it can be, sir. What you did tonight was very Presidential.

President Andrew Shepherd: Leon, somewhere in Libya right now, a janitor's working the night shift at Libyan Intelligence Headquarters. He's going about doing his job... because he has no idea, in about an hour he's going to die in a massive explosion. He's just going about his job, because he has no idea that about an hour ago I gave an order to have him killed. You've just seen me do the least presidential thing I do.

I can only hope that any president or ruler of any country has the same sort of moral reflection on his or her decisions, both before and after making them. After all, lives are at stake, both in the immediate action and any related military response that might be a result of that. Accordingly, such decisions shouldn't be made lightly or, as has sometimes been the case, simply for political or other gain.

Imagine then, when someone discovers that authorization for military action has been rigged and that countless lives -- not only of those being attacked, but also innocent bystanders and even the "good guy" aggressors -- will thus illegally be put at risk.

Such was the case with Katharine Gun, a British intelligence translator who got wind that the Americans wanted Britain's help in spying on United Nations delegates in order to find enough embarrassing material with which to blackmail them into voting for the 2003 invasion of Iraq under false pretenses.

Her true-life story now comes to the big screen in the form of "Official Secrets," so named for England's "keep your mouth shut or else" law designed to prevent espionage and any leaking of highly sensitive government information. To some, though, it's nothing more than a way to stop whistleblowers from exposing top-secret government wrongdoing.

Whatever the truth might be, it's the pivotal element around which this adaptation of Marcia & Thomas Mitchell's "The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War" revolves. Keira Knightley stars as Gun, a worker-bee cog in Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and when we first see her, she's charged with violating the aforementioned act. The story -- penned by writer/director Gavin Hood and co-scribes Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein -- then rewinds back a year to when an NSA memo is shared among Gun's colleagues.

It essentially states that the U.S. government would like help in spying on certain U.N. delegates in order to obtain enough embarrassing intel about them that could be used, if needed, to "convince" them to vote for the U.S.'s push to invade Iraq and take down Saddam Hussein and his "weapons of mass destruction."

Shocked by the gall of such illegality, Katharine doesn't tell her husband, Yasar Gun (Adam Bakri) -- who's still going through the immigration process to stay in the country -- but instead goes to an anti-war associate who covertly gets said memo to Martin Bright (Matt Smith), a reporter for the pro-government paper The Observer.

He realizes that's huge, but must convince his editor, Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), and the publisher, Roger Alton (Conleth Hill) to allow him to work on the story, tapping into fellow journalist Ed Vulliamy's (Rhys Ifans) "take down the power" mantra for added details.

What follows is a storyline you've seen countless times before -- a whistleblower must contend with the nuclear hot fallout of their actions and ends up with a good guy lawyer on their side (here played by Ralph Fiennes), while a reporter races to confirm the validity of the material that's about to run in their story. Yet, and despite not really knowing a lot about these characters (and there's a menagerie of them, including on-screen wording to indicate who they are), the film works and manages to feel both fresh and timely.

It certainly benefits from solid performances all around, but especially by Knightley as a woman stuck in quite the conundrum of risking everything in order to shine light on a wrongdoing that figuratively and literally could blow up into something perversely bad...and deadly to many. You can feel every ounce of her predicament and that's what helps make the film feel approachable and engaging from start to finish.

As a result, and while not blown away due to some of the overall superficiality, I found Knightley's character's dilemma the driving force of what makes "Official Secrets" worth seeing. It rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed September 3, 2019 / Posted September 6, 2019


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