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A morality tale for the 21st century, Official Secrets tells the true story of British Intelligence whistle-blower Katharine Gun who, during the immediate run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, leaked a top secret NSA memo exposing a joint US-UK illegal spying operation against members of the UN Security Council. The memo proposed blackmailing smaller, undecided member states into voting for war. At great personal and professional risk, journalist Martin Bright published the leaked document in The Observer newspaper in London, and the story made headlines around the world. Members of the Security Council were outraged and any chance of a UN resolution in favour of war collapsed. But within days, Bush declared he no longer needed UN backing and invaded anyway. As Iraq descended into chaos, Katharine was arrested and charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. Martin faced potential charges too. Their legal battles exposed the highest levels of government in both London and Washington ...
In the winter of 2003, a translator working for the British government saw a document that indicated the U.S. was trying to lead the Western powers into an illegal war in Iraq. The document, an email from a US National Security Agency official, urged spying on members of the UN Security Council to pressure them to vote for a resolution to support the war. Enraged that the British government is apparently participating in this effort to lie to their respective nations' citizens and blackmail others to justify an illegal war, Katharine Gun arranges for the email to be leaked to the press.
Co-writer and director Gavin Wood, whose last project was the taut and thrilling "Eye in the Sky," has created a more calm and conventional presentation of a true story here. It's important -- and even relevant in 2019, when the U.S. President constantly lies and casually dismisses evidence of international espionage. It's also beautifully shot, underplayed with superb acting (especially by Knightley, who manages to hold together somewhat disparate plots -- her character's personal arc with her Turkish Muslim immigrant husband, the issues for the media faced with this info, and the legal questions raised by her defense team), with a brooding, mostly not in-your-face score.
But it's a talky movie that may find it a challenge to connect with American audiences: no shooting, no car chases or punches thrown, and only a brief war-zone scene. The viewer is left to take the critical issues from recent history as far as he or she chooses, and some of the more thorny questions about political whistle-blowers such as Assange and Snowden remain untouched. (The motives of the real Katharine Gun may indeed have been as pure as they're depicted here, and if so, major kudos to her, but that doesn't make for a terribly ambiguous protagonist and story). The understated plotting and acting lead to an equally -- and probably also true -- understated and almost anti-climactic denouement in court, where Gun appears to face charges of violating Britain's Official Secrets Act.
I'm glad Wood and company made the movie. The story and the questions it raises are worth thinking about . . . and one cannot help wondering how Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Colin Powell look upon those events -- and how they're depicted in this movie -- today.
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