In some people’s eyes, Katherine Gun—a translator for the British Government Communications Headquarters—is nothing short of a hero. No, it’s not because she deciphered some damaging Chinese or Russian intel, or anything like that. It’s because she followed her conscience.
After encountering an NSA memo in early 2003 asking for information that would assist the U.S. and U.K. governments in leveraging reluctant members of the U.N. Security Council, Katherine balked. Well, OK … that’s not completely true. Reading between the lines, the NSA memo was actually asking for dirt on those Security Council members to strong-arm them into supporting an Iraqi invasion.
Katherine, shocked by this official-but-secret request and its implied attempt to manipulate Britain into joining a war, makes a decision to do something about it: She leaks the GCHQ info to an old friend in the anti-war movement. She hopes it will get to the right people, be investigated somewhere by someone. Then the whole affair will blow up in the public square, and her conscience will be clear.
What happens instead is that the full memo ends up being published by a big London newspaper. And it isn’t long before investigations, and hard-boiled governmental officials, find their way back to one Katherine Gun.
Things do indeed blow up. But not exactly as she had imagined.
Not long after, a GCHQ colleague shows up at Katherine’s door, ashamed that she didn’t blow the whistle on the government’s misdeeds. And Katharine comforts her, saying that this supportive friend didn’t do anything wrong.
Of course, the same can’t be said for Katherine. She violated the terms of the Official Secrets Act, which is a pretty important law for GCHQ employees. In the government’s eyes, Katherine became the equivalent of a spy spilling classified intel to the world. And that choice could well lead to public humiliation, the deportation of Katherine’s husband and a long stretch of jail time.
Turns out being a conscientious hero ain’t as great as it’s cracked up to be.
Katherine is convinced that U.S. and British government officials are lying about the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction that are allegedly present in Iraq. She’s seen official documents that suggest as much. And she hates the idea of war, period.
So when the NSA suggests that something illegal might happening in that push-to-war pursuit, Katherine can’t stay quiet any longer. “My motive was to stop war and save people,” Katherine declares while being interrogated about her whistle-blowing actions.
Speaking out against injustice is the right thing to do. However, breaking the law isn’t. And that’s the moral fulcrum that this drama teeters on. In a way then, you could view this film as a cautionary tale about the potential consequences of taking illegal action. (That said, the film also goes to great lengths to justify Katherine’s technically illegal choices, praising those choices as heroic because of her willingness to follow her conscience. Whether she comes across as a hero of villain here will likely be influenced by each viewer’s political perspective.)
Katherine’s husband , Yasar, is a Kurdish Muslim who’s not yet an official British citizen. And that makes him something of a lightning rod in this story’s post-9/11 setting.
Katherine and Yasar cuddle and kiss in bed. It’s implied that they’re both unclothed, though we only see his bare upper torso and her bare shoulders. Later, we see Katherine in bed clothes.
A fellow GCHQ employee makes a snarky comment about listening to a secretly recorded, sexually tinged phone conversation.
We see TV reports and archival video footage depicting the war and destruction in Iraq. The film also uses shots of dead bodies juxtaposed against political speeches to emphasize the deadliness of and Kathrine’s opposition to the war.
More than 20 f-words and three or four s-words join uses of “h—” and “a–hole.” The British crudity “bloody” is spit out five times, and there are a couple of crude British slang references to the female anatomy. Jesus name is misused four times.
Several people smoke cigarettes.
Lying is one of the central issues of this film. And you can spot it on both sides of the story’s political tug of war. However, the story clearly condemns the deceptive, real-world political figures who lied and apparently sought to drive the world to war. Irked government officials push to have Yasar deported because of his wife’s actions.
From this dramatic film’s opening moments, it’s no, uh, secret that Official Secrets is designed to spill the beans on instances of governmental subterfuge that you have likely never heard of. And it takes about 10 minutes of screen time to get the full gist of British whistle-blower Katherine Gun’s story.
After that, actress Kiera Knightley diligently invests her portrayal of Katherine Gun with a mixture of quivering intensity and righteous passion. And director Gavin Hood applies all his directorial savvy to make this cinematic slice of political history into something … really important. In fact, several characters in the film actually pause at intervals to gaze directly at the camera and remind us of just how important it all is.
But truthfully, this is a very thin tale filled with more f-words and crudities than notable intrigue or dramatic high points. And even if you can steel yourself against the profane dialogue, you’ll still be hard pressed to justify investing two hours of your soon-to-be history, and a nine dollar bucket of popcorn, in this would-be thriller.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.