Gavin Hood's Official Secrets may very well play better to American audiences than UK audiences. The film is about whistleblower Katherine Gun, who leaked an email that suggested that GCHQ employees spy on UN diplomats to blackmail them into voting for the invasion of Iraq. Many Americans will not recall this story as it was not covered in the same way as it was in the UK by The Guardian. As a result, the traditional nature of this biopic is more riveting because the story is less known.
At the film's center is a rousing lead performance by Keira Knightley. She's a great choice here, capturing the internal struggle she has over Britain's involvement in the Iraq War and her role in trying to do something about it. This is further complicated by the fact that her husband is applying for citizenship and her actions could have dire consequences for them. Katherine Gun is overlooked as a hero of this era in history and it is wonderful to see Official Secrets tell her story.
Director Hood has had a rocky career but feels at home with this material. He delivers an effective, clear film even if it is a bit routine and occasionally stuffy. He focuses on Gun's struggle to look out for herself and to do something she feels is right for her country. It creates a compelling tension that keeps the film interesting even when it drags on. There is a sense the film could lose 20 minutes with ease. Part of the glut happens from the decision to also focus on The Observer and the reporters who helped break the story. While Matt Smith and Matthew Goode deliver solid performances, their story isn't as interesting as Gun's.
Official Secrets delivers a compelling account of a real hero. Knightley is fantastic in a lead performance that reminds me of how underutilized she can be. The performance is vulnerable but determined, painting a portrait of heroism that feels very real. The film is noble, reminding us that heroic acts are often small but personally big decisions.