One and a half out of four stars
Based on the true story of an English government employee who chose to challenge the decisions of many high-powered people in lofty places, “Official Secrets” mashes up the government conspiracy and news-reporting genres into one well intended but ultimately low-wattage ball of blah.
With ’70s hippy-chick hair and no make-up, Kiera Knightley stars as Katharine Gun, a GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) employee whose job is to interpret foreign language emails (Mandarin Chinese) and report anything she finds of international interest to her boss. It’s not MI6 by any stretch, but it’s still an important mid-level security position.
In the first of many don’t-make-sense-moments, Gun and all of her co-workers receive an email in 2003 suggesting with little doubt that the U.S. government is leaning hard on the U.K. and six other European and African “swings nations” to give their OK for starting a war with Iraq. In the email it is also suggested blackmail might be employed to achieve the goal. Needless to say this is the kind of touchy, black-op type of correspondence low-level people like Gun should never see, but she does.
Knowing that if she shared it with anyone it would be a violation of Britain’s “Official Secrets” act (which goes back as far as 1889), Gun nonetheless turns over a copy of the email to a friend who is a strong anti-war activist. That friend then relays it to a member of the press (Matthew Goode). In one fell swoop, Gun and two other people commit clear-cut high treason.
After what appears to be meticulous fact-checking by the paper’s editorial staff (but not the actual editor!), ace reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) submits the damning piece which is received by the public at large and other media outlets as revelatory. For a brief while, Bright is regarded as an industry rock star.
Then, seemingly without reason, the networks which want to interview Bright (Fox News, CBS, NBC, CNN) all withdraw their requests. Without spoiling much, the reason given is – really – the American spelling of the word “favorable” vs. the British spelling of the same word (“favourable”). The blame was unceremoniously dumped on an office underling for her use of “spell-check” software.
The movie is minor interest to reporters, writers or editors in general and those who work or have worked in the newspaper business for any considerable length of time. While the intrigue regarding the main plot is tepid and lukewarm at best, the considerable chunk of time dedicated to the British newsroom hearkens back to a time when news people spoke among themselves quite frankly. The many F-bombs dropped throughout the film are not gratuitous and paint an accurate picture of the era.
There are two big problems with director Gavin Hood’s “Official Secrets” from a structural perspective, the first being the result of all that happened can easily be found with a rudimentary Google search. That’s OK in theory as many true stories made into movies have well known endings. So why bother seeing a movie such as this?
The simple answer is well-executed narrative craft, something which regularly eludes the grasp of Hood and his two co-screenwriters.
In “All the President’s Men,” we knew the ending going in but we watched it anyway (often repeatedly) because it was a great movie with a well told story. You could also say the same about recent newspaper films such as “The Post” – which dealt with the Pentagon Papers and the Best Picture winner “Spotlight” which went into detail about the sexual indiscretions involving Catholic priests in Boston and beyond.
Although not a newspaper movie, the 2010 espionage thriller “Fair Game” also depicts a true event (the public outing of U.S. spy Valerie Plame) where (most) audiences knew the story start to finish.
One needs more than people speaking dialogue off of a page about interesting stuff to make an interesting movie. The generically titled “Official Secrets” never gets close. The cast recite their lines as if sitting at banquet tables during a first draft read-through, save for Rhys Ifans whose over-caffeinated rants overcompensate.
The content of “Official Secrets” is primo fodder for a movie which leads to the second problem. The film has a lot of people talking and talking is not good for most movies unless you have some sex, violence and car chases on the side. There’s none of that here nor in the other previously mentioned movies, which is the point. Adding to the problem – at least for those not familiar with the newspaper industry – is the overload of “inside baseball” news jargon which could lead to many eyes glazing over.
“Official Secrets” is a far cry from Hood’s Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language winner from 2003 (“Tsotsi”) and the equally impressive wartime thriller “Eye in the Sky” from 2015. It’s a movie that’s at least 10 years too late in coming and not nearly important or riveting enough to make anyone care.