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    Jul 2002
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    OFFICIAL SECRETS (Gavin Hood 2019)



    A whistleblower tries to stop the Iraq war

    his is not an exceptionally revelatory, suspenseful or stylish film. But it works out the interfaces for us between government, citizenry, and the press, and revives the hope that in a democracy these elements can interact effectively. Or should, or almost do. This isn't exactly a spy story or a thriller or a courtroom drama but a little of all of these and for a while a newsroom drama, a big enough one to pull Daniel Ellsberg into it. Because it's a British whistleblower story from the run-up to the Iraq war.

    Katherine Gunn (Keiry Knightly) isn't a spy. She works for GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters, which provides signals intelligence to the UK government and armed forces. (This means they eavesdrop all over the world.) Katherine appears to speak Chinese, though this is never mentioned or explained (the real Katherine grew up in Taiwan and trained as a translator). One day she sees a directive relayed from the CIA (Blair is in full poodle mode to Bush at this point, in 2003) to help the US and UK spy on members of the Security Council to gather dirt that can be used to make them vote the Bush-Blair way for the Iraq invasion and thereby legitimize it.

    Katherine is already yelling at the TV in fury at the fake intelligence being bandied about to justify war, the WMD's and ties to Al Qaeda, both false. (She guesses false, and she's right. The real Katherine had actually read several books about the subject.) So, with great hesitation, of course, she takes a copy of the memo to a woman friend who's an antiwar activist. Through her it gets to Martin Bright of the Observer (Matt Smith). It's a process, but he gets the editors interested and newly skeptical of the war pretexts they've been swallowing up to now. Through eccentric US correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) in Washington, they verify the name of the CIA officer on the directive and it gets published. This was not Katherine's intention. She only wanted word to get around. But suddenly, it's a media sensation.

    But too our surprise and consternation, perhaps, this big story is immediately mocked and repudiated by multiple sources as a fake - because of English vs. American spellings in the text of the document. It turns out this was the fault of an underling who falsified the text by using "spellcheck" on it. British spellcheck. This is also a hint of the fickleness and brevity of news cycles.

    This is not spy movie because Katherine only steals this one document, and, by the way, for an altruistic purpose, to save the British people from entering a fabricated war. Or just to prevent a stupid and destructive war. Her motives change as she speaks. This isn't much of a thriller. She is never in tremendous danger. This ism
    t a courtroom drama. Katherine isn't charged for a year - apparently to punish her - and then when she goes before the full dress British court with the men in wigs and the complicated woodwork, the trial is immediately called off by the government, who believe they do not have a case. She has claimed the war was not legitimate. The pretexts for it were, in fact, very flimsy.

    This film is a reminder that the pretexts for this war were false and hints that with more effort it might have been prevented.

    Luckily, there is a love interest. Katherine happens to have a handsome young Kurdish husband - member of a minority with every reason to hate Saddam Hussein, she points out. She has saved him from extradition by marrying him, but for love. Katherine's action puts him in danger and in fact, the government takes steps to extradite him. It's true that Katherine had to fight to save her husband from extradition during her own fight and legal negotiations, but a 2013 Guardian article points out her real husband is Turkish. The movie's Kurd is played by the Palestinian actor Omar Bakri, whose debut was the lead in Hany Abu-Assad's 2013 (NYFF) suicide bomber film, Omar. Bakri is charismatic, and the thread of Katherine's at-risk Kurdish husband is an essential humanizing touch.

    Another nice touch is Ralph FIennes as the good-guy attorney, who agrees to take on Katherine's case after she's been arrested and is waiting to find out if she will be charged with high treason or not. Gregory and Sara Bernstein, who wrote the screenplay working from a book by Marcia and Thomas Mitcvhell, do a very decent job of navigating our way through this foggy situation. Fiennes and Bakri help a lot. Knightly does a good job of looking upright; this is not one of her more interesting performances but physically she feels right for the part.

    In the end as a movie Official Secrets offers us juicy tidbits but not a meal. It's watchable but not great. It was made because Katherine Gun's story is one of courage set at a key moment. Her action unveiled the fact that two governments were implicated in a plan to get a UN war resolution through blackmailing various countries including : Chile, Bulgaria, Angola, Cameroon, Pakistan, Mexico, et al. Once in a while someone gums up the works, and we're the better for it. It's not easy for them. But with luck, they will have help. And Katherine made it through. It might be nice to imagine what John Le Carré might have made with this material.

    Official Secrets, 111 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2019, playing at about ten other festivals. It opened Aug. 31 in the US, plays in the London Film Festival Oct. 10 and in UK cinemas Oct. 18. Current Metascore 62%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-11-2019 at 09:43 AM.


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