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In 2019, there’s something quaint about a whistleblower drama like Official Secrets. Directed efficiently by Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game), it tells the true story of Katharine Gun, a British intelligence agent who tried to stop the Iraq War by leaking state secrets. The real-life events are worth documenting, and the film holds together nicely. But a good historical film often tells us something about the present, and Official Secrets, with its unblinking faith in the justice system, seems stuck in the past. Its view of corruption reflects none of our era’s chaos. 

When we first meet Keira Knightley’s Gun, she is an average citizen, politically aware but not yet active. A translator for a British surveillance agency, she is moved to act when she receives a shocking new assignment—to assist the U.S. government by spying on the leaders of underdeveloped nations in the hopes of blackmailing them to back a UN Resolution supporting the war. Unable to justify her role in propping up what she perceives as an illegal war, she leaks the directive to the press, and quickly finds herself facing the very serious charge of violating the Official Secrets Act, which some call treason.

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At the very least, Official Secrets will work marvelously as a fetish item for viewers who get a thrill from watching smart, good-looking people wearing business suits arguing in well lit conference rooms. First up are the journalists. The leaked document gets into the hands of reporter Martin Bright (The Crown’s Matt Smith), who battles his pro-war editors to publish it. He believes in publishing the truth, but they fear damaging their friendly relationship with the prime minister’s office. 

After the document is published and Gun is charged, Knightley has some terrific scenes with her Ralph Fiennes-led legal team. Sitting around a conference table, they strike and parry, armed with top-notch dialogue, as they search for a credible defense. Official Secrets is overflowing with characters who believe deeply in their causes—be it a free press, the law, or their opposition to war—and it’s a pleasure to watch this talented cast sink their teeth into such high-stakes material.

The film falters when it depends on character rather than procedure. Gun endures serious risk: Her job, her husband (a Muslim immigrant subject to deportation), and her freedom are all at stake. But we know so little about who she is that the attempt at creating emotional tension falls flat. While it’s stirring to see such passionate anti-war activism represented, Gun is more of a totem for radical patriotism than a human being to invest in.

Political symbols are substantial in their moment, but their value recedes the further away we get. In the face of the overwhelming systemic dangers we face today, individual sacrifices like Gun’s seem almost passé. That’s a symptom of a deeper tragedy, and here’s another: Official Secrets is an effective entry in a genre that has outlived its usefulness.

Official Secrets opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.

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