“OFFICIAL SECRETS”: Whistleblowing

My rating: B- (Opens wide on Sept. 13) – 111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Published September 12, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

There are moments when “Official Secrets” doesn’t seem to know just whose story it is telling; others when the dialogue sounds more like speechifying than regular conversation.

Still, there’s something so vital about the material it covers — the British government’s complicity in the Bush White House’s half-assed plan to invade Iraq — that Gavin Hood’s fact-based docudrama demands to be seen.

In 2003 Katharine Gun, an analyst with Her Majesty’s spy service, received an unexpected email.  In this message — also received by all of her co-workers — the American CIA urged everyone to be on the lookout for dirt that could be used to force recalcitrant members of the United Nations Security Council into voting for a US/British invasion of Iraq.

Gun was both surprised that she received the email — her regular gig was translating intercepted Chinese telephone communications — and appalled that the Yanks and her own people were so nonchalantly encouraging the entire apparatus of British intelligence to participate in a blackmail scheme for the purpose of rushing into an unjust war.

So she surreptitiously copied the email and gave it to an anti-war activist friend, who passed it on to a newspaper reporter, who with his colleagues spent months verifying the truth of the communication.

Eventually the story was published, but not without some unexpected blowback.  Before it hit the printed page, an unsuspecting editor ran the copy through Spell Check, which changed all the American spellings in the CIA email to British, thus leading to accusations that this was a British-generated fake document.

Spell Check strikes again.

As scripted by Hood, Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein (from Marcia Mitchell and Thomas  Mitchell’s book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War), “Official Secrets” is essentially a procedural docudrama populated by an A-list British cast.

Keira Knightley portrays Gun, who knows she has committed espionage and fears that if she’s found out  she will face years behind bars. She comes pretty close to having a nervous breakdown. It doesn’t help that as the noose tightens her Muslim husband becomes a target for government retaliation…namely deportation.

Matthew Goode, Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans portray reporters and editors for the London Observer who, in an effort to nail down the story, jump through hoops reminiscent of those facing Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men.”

Later, when Gun does find herself charged with espionage, she is defended by Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma as left-leaning lawyers who have made a career of taking on whistleblowers.

Basically we’ve got three movies here.  The Gun story is abandoned for a good half hour while the reporters do their thing; with the arrival of her high-powered and idealistic defense team, the plot becomes a slog through legal minutiae (it’s sort of like the second act of an old “Law & Order” episode).

Katharine Gun never did go to prison…but there’s no sense in giving away the film’s big dramatic payoff.  Let’s just say that her day in court would have proven too painful to the powers that be.

History has not been kind to either Tony Blair, the British P.M. who caved to the American’s baseless argument for invasion, nor to President George W. Bush.  Blair may never live down the infamy he generated;  Bush was blessed with Donald Trump,  next to whom Bush’s duplicity and ineptness now seem quaint.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene


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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.