REVIEW: OFFICIAL SECRETS is an engrossing look at the accountability of government and its actions to its citizenry.


Director Gavin Hood delivers a taught and gripping political drama that raises the question of how far should a government go in justifying actions in service of its allies against the legality of those actions to its people.

Ever since the advent of Wikileaks in the mid-2000s, there has been a renewed captivation in public interest in the idea of an individual actor acting on behalf of the greater interest of a country’s people over that of extra-governmental action. The existence of an outlet, whether via an anonymous contribution to a service like Wikileaks or by leaking information to the fourth estate, is a concept that has inspired individuals in intelligence apparatuses worldwide to act on their conscience and release information that may save lives by exposing corruption or illegal practices that hurt the existence of a true democracy. It is also a topic that has served filmmakers well. From Steven Spielberg’s 2017 docudrama on the publication of the Pentagon Papers to Alan J. Pakula’s 1977 dramatization of Woodward and Bernstein’s takedown of Nixon via Watergate in All the President’s Men, there hasn’t been a shortage of well-executed portrayals of these extraordinary situations. Director Gavin Hood has experience in bringing light to these types of stories as seen in his 2007 film Rendition, which touched on the extrajudicial practice of extraordinary rendition, the sequestering and interrogation of foreign nationals to elicit intelligence. In Hood’s latest, Official Secrets, Hood examines how England’s Official Secrets Act, a law refined after The Falklands War in 1982, makes it almost impossible for an employee of British intelligence to defend their actions in leaking documents they feel may save English lives.

Keira Knightley plays Katherine Gun, a translator worker for GCHQ, a part of the English Civil Service which monitors communications of its citizenry much in the way Homeland Security or the NSA does in the United States. While working for GCHQ in 2003, Gun is sent a memo from her superiors via a request from the NSA asking her and her co-workers to monitor and bug the UN offices of Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Pakistan. These six votes would give the US the necessary numbers to ratify a UN resolution to invade Iraq post 9/11. This was an illegal action, and one that troubles Gun tremendously to the point that she reaches out friends to leak the memo to expose the government’s actions. After initially being denied by the Daily Mirror, the memo makes its way to The Observer and reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith). Smith reaches out to colleagues Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) and Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) and they eventually they get enough evidence to warrant publication. This leads to a witchhunt at GCHQ and Gun seeking out the help of human rights attorney Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) who sets out to prove Katherine’s innocence by arguing her actions were a necessity to saves lives from an illegal action.

Despite its nearly 2 hour length, Official Secrets is a briskly paced and engrossing. Hood creates a human story around Gun’s actions and the lengths to which the government of England is willing to go to scare her into compliance. Knightley really excels at selling this character’s motivations for her actions and the effects its consequences have on her and her marriage to an Iraqi national. Similarly, Smith, Ifans, Goode, and Fiennes round out an exemplary supporting cast that infuses the film with a sense of grounded realism that serves to ratchet the film’s tension.

Overall, Official Secrets opens a window into the same questions that Snowden and The Fifth Estate open about American democracy and the lengths a government is willing to go to hide its agenda in service of political theater. Hood creates an engrossing legal and political thriller with an affecting cause and protagonist.