If movies were simply judged by their educational and historical merits, “Official Secrets” would be a slam dunk. Based on real events, the drama about a British translator who leaked a top secret NSA memo during the 2003 lead-up to the Iraq war fancies itself the next “Spotlight” or “The Post,” but its workmanlike translation is more fitting for social studies classrooms than awards conversations. Keira Knightley delivers a routine performance in a central role that is more expository than explosive, and the dramatic action builds around her character more like it would a glorified coat rack than a compelling heroine. “Official Secrets” may tell a story worth memorializing, especially today, but it never rises to the heights of its lofty aspirations.
Based on the true story of British Intelligence whistleblower Katharine Gun (Knightley), “Official Secrets” begins with Katharine facing trial for treason in 2004 before cutting back to one year prior. While working as a Mandarin translator at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (G.C.H.Q.), Katharine is shocked to receive a staff-wide email from a man named Frank Koza, chief of staff for the regional targets division at the National Security Agency. The memo explained that the NSA was looking for any information on United Nations delegates that could be used to sway their votes in favor of the war in Iraq. Already dubious of the existence of weapons of mass destruction then-Prime Minister Tony Blair insists Iraq has, demonstrated by her gripes at the news while her husband tries to watch football, Katharine decides to take action.
With all the tension of a butter knife, Katharine surreptitiously prints out the email via floppy disk and leaks it to a friend in the anti-war movement, where it eventually finds its way to The Observer reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith). The pace quickens here, despite some performative jockeying by a band of bickering journalists (led by Rhys Ifans and Conleth Hill). As the ambitious journalist, Smith adds a needed burst of energy to the proceedings, cutting a far more compelling figure than Knightley, who spends much of the action siloed off in chemistry-free scenes with her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri).
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This is no doubt a function of Gavin Hood’s inoffensive direction, and a by-the-books script by Gregory and Sara Bernstein. The late introduction of yet another significant figure, Katharine’s lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), shifts the focus yet again, and the movie abandons one idealistic journalist for an idealistic lawyer. These are key figures in the true story, but the pacing of their involvement has the unfortunate effect of diffusing their significance, while also pulling focus from Katharine. Though she is the uniting figure, it often feels as though the narrative is swirling around her rather than being driven by her.
Once the British government learns Katharine was responsible for the leak, she and Yasar experience the full weight of her treasonous actions. Turns out, the UK doesn’t like harboring husbands of traitors, and Yasar, a Turkish Kurd, narrowly escapes deportation. The legal questions surrounding her case help the movie reach a new gear, and “Official Secrets” makes quick work of narrating the duplicitous strong-arming by the United States and Britain that led to the Iraq war.
By the time Jeremy Northam shows up as Ben’s beach house neighbor, one wonders if any beloved British actor turned down “Official Secrets” — and if they should have. The always-excellent Matthew Goode is uncharacteristically forgettable as journalist Peter Beaumont; and though she gets fairly high billing in promotional material for the film, Indira Varma is embarrassingly underutilized as one of the lawyers. (The movie even goes as far as relegating her to hold Katharine’s purse.)
Knightley displays no new tricks in “Official Secrets,” delivering an idealistic heroine who is cool under pressure and passionate in her beliefs. She knows how to communicate what is at stake without overdoing it, and she infuses the jargonistic dialogue with as much personality as she can muster. Perhaps it’s the commitment to realism that makes “Official Secrets” so inoffensively levelheaded, but Katharine’s big statements come in drab interrogation rooms rather than flashy courtrooms.
In what should be a powerful scene with a detective from Scotland Yard (Peter Guinness), Katharine says firmly: “I gather intelligence so the government can protect the British people. I don’t gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.” Her bold statement of purpose lands with a hollow plop, and Katharine’s fiery moment bounces flatly off the stale grey walls in which Hood has confined her. Like its heroine, “Official Secrets” is shouting into an echo chamber.
IFC Films releases “”Official Secrets” in theaters on Friday, August 30.