Official Secrets (2019; Gavin Hood)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, September 13, at the Tower Theatre in Sacramento and the Varsity Theater in Davis.
Keira Knightley stars as British whistleblower Katharine Gun in this shallow and painfully derivative biopic. The real Gun is a blonde, but those optics won’t fly, so Knightley sports the straight, drab, dark brown hairstyle of a Woman the Audience Should Take Seriously. That kind of solemn inauthenticity permeates Official Secrets, a dog whistle drama more concerned with heroizing Gun than fleshing out her character.
“In the Hands of a Hack”
You know you’re in the hands of a hack the moment the movie starts at the end for no reason. South African director Gavin Hood won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his debut film Tsotsi. Since then, he’s served as Hollywood’s unthinking thinking-man, alternating “hot-button” turds like Rendition and Eye in the Sky with heavy-handed blockbusters like Wolverine and Ender’s Game. Hood brings all the hokey emotional scare tactics and blandly manufactured tension you would expect to Official Secrets.
After the pointless prelude, the film jumps back to early 2003, when Gun lived in Cheltenham with her immigrant husband. During the leadup to the Iraq War, Gun leaked an NSA memo that sought blackmail material on UN Security Council delegates. The document ended up in the hands of a British journalist, who wrote a story without Gun’s knowledge. Gun tried to conceal her involvement from investigators, but she eventually came forward as the source.
“Dull, Gray Soapbox”
As Gun’s equally grandstanding defense lawyer, Ralph Fiennes is too good for this dull, gray soapbox. However, Knightley’s perpetual look grave constipation feels just about right for Official Secrets. She gives us Katharine Gun as a drearily noble, grandstanding bore, not that far off from Britta on Community. But instead of telling Gun she’s “the worst,” every character she meets tells her that she’s brave and extraordinary. For all the hero worship, though, the film never even tries to get inside Gun’s head.
Official Secrets is a pretty sorry substitute for predecessors like Spotlight and Snowden, which were both pretty sorry in their own right. Naturally, the nuts and bolts of reporting matter less here than the concept of journalism, what it “stands for.” If nothing else, it was a big mistake to watch this dud the same week I watched Sam Fuller’s vigorous Park Row for the first time.