I really wish more filmmakers would come to the art form later in life, after already having successful careers in other disciplines. Gavin Hood was an attorney before he became a filmmaker; and his dedication to material facts, to building an air-tight argument through the presentation of a compelling narrative, drives OFFICIAL SECRETS. This is a political thriller of a much smaller scale than ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN or SNOWDEN, but in many ways its relative simplicity makes it stronger. A true story about an intelligence agency officer’s impulsive decision to leak key information about the lead up to the invasion of Iraq ends up being an incredibly potent means to call the entire war into question, and all thanks to Hood’s very lawyerly approach.
The most striking thing about OFFICIAL SECRETS is how stark it is. From the “just the facts” approach to the writing, to the no-frills directing, to Keira Knightley’s almost no-makeup performance, this is a movie that fully expects you to come along for the ride on the sheer power of its story alone. And what a story it is, a nearly forgotten tale of naive bravery in the face of an absolutely unstoppable, unconscionable war. If it weren’t for OFFICIAL SECRETS, most of us would never know the name Katharine Gun, which ends up being one of the most chilling things about the whole movie. Here we have a person who showed enormous courage in the face of the two most powerful governments on the planet, who took a principled stand against an illegal war, and she’s been largely left to the dustbin of history.
Part of the reason she’s been forgotten is that her attempt to intervene was ultimately unsuccessful. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that obviously the invasion of Iraq happened in spite of Katharine’s best efforts, but discovering exactly why Katharine’s leak of top-secret information was ultimately thwarted is absolutely maddening. OFFICIAL SECRETS is necessary viewing because it demonstrates how facile and tenuous the argument for war really was. Despite the Bush and Blair administration’s constant pounding of the war drums, there were plenty of people who could plainly see that the evidence of Sadam possessing chemical weapons simply did not add up. Katharine Gun acted alone in drawing attention to this reality; had she been one of a deluge of intelligence agents leaking information against the war, there really is a chance it could have been diverted entirely.
For being a narrative film, OFFICIAL SECRETS is very dedicated to the truth. Hood has explained in granular detail all the plot points which were changed for the function of the narrative, so as to make it clear that the overall story is based incredibly closely on what actually happened. Similarly, Knightley chose to keep her natural brunette hair (Katharine Gun is blonde) and to not wear prosthetics to change her face shape. She wears next-to-no makeup throughout the film, and many of the most crucial moments of the narrative are carried entirely by her unflinching performance in close up. Furthermore, Hood uses documentary footage to tremendous effect, regularly demonstrating how the footage from CSPAN and the UN was holding the world’s attention as Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld baldly lied their way into war.
This is what makes OFFICIAL SECRETS so valuable in 2019. For many people under 30, the Iraq war is an incredibly hazy memory; you can most likely remember it happening, but the fog is so thick that the specifics feel impossible to cling on to. Hood does an incredible job of providing context for the war for anyone who doesn’t painfully remember every moment of the lead up to it. Tthis film should absolutely be taught in high school history classes as a new generation that really has no personal connection to the war comes of age. The mania and collective psychosis that had to happen to make the invasion of Iraq possible already feel like a bygone era, but watching this film, it becomes very easy to see how another situation like Iraq could raise its head any day now.
OFFICIAL SECRETS constantly reminds its audience that a vast army of people in positions of authority had to fall in line for the war to happen. The political class, the intelligence agencies, and the press all had to move in tandem to manufacture a false narrative to force an illegal war to occur. Any number of people could have chosen to put their personal liberties on the line in order to take a stand, but Katharine Gun was one of the few who truly did. If more people had done what she did, the film makes it abundantly clear that the war really might have never happened. We are always at crucial crossroads in history, any number of us are at one point or another confronted with choices to do the morally courageous thing, and so rarely do we actually rise to the occasion. The case that Hood lays out in the film is extremely clear; if we want anything to actually improve, we’re going to have to start taking a stand.