Watching the British docudrama Official Secrets (2019) comes with a smattering of cognitive dissonance, its detailed depiction of a seventeen-year-old scandal struggling to measure up against our constant barrage of 2020-grade political outrage. Even so, it interestingly documents the feel of its era, effectively resurrecting an earlier stage of the modern west’s slide into rampant corruption.
Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) is an analyst/translator at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s equivalent of the National Security Agency. In February 2003, Katherine’s conscience is troubled by an internal agency memo from the United States encouraging British services to step up intelligence of United Nations security council members. This looks like a bald, politicized operation to manipulate a U.N. vote to justify the invasion of Iraq. In direct violation of the Official Secrets Act, Katharine risks everything — including the immigration status of her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) — by leaking the email to the press. A reporter for the Observer, Matthew Bright (Matt Smith), pursues the story and eventually publishes a controversial article exposing the scandal: that the United States and the United Kingdom are actively colluding to fabricate a pretext for war. The leak causes turmoil at GCHQ, ultimately thrusting Katherine into a legal quagmire.
Official Secrets possesses all the structural drawbacks of the based-on-reality biopic, but overall does a pretty solid job dramatizing its subject matter: behind-the-scenes events leading up to the United States’ catastrophic, illegal war in the Middle East. Again, the stark difference between what constitutes an outrage in 2003 versus 2020 is so monumental that the film’s attitude and message almost seem quaint; it’s deeply weird how subdued and innocuous the villainy of Bush and Blair seems now, compared against that of Trump and Johnson. But those bygone administrations had a lasting and pernicious effect on the twenty-first century, and Official Secrets effectively chronicles that turning point, which certainly had cascade effect into our current troubles. Knightley’s powerful performance is elegantly scripted to sell the film’s simple but important message, and there’s able support from a cast that includes Bakri, Smith, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthew Goode. It’s another example of a conspiracy thriller striving to penetrate the daily distortions of the post-truth era to reimagine a time when the details of objective reality had more meaning and consequence, and shows the strain of such an endeavor. But its intent is virtuous, and the production is well done.