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When the whistle blows

'Official Secrets' acts out truth-based morality play

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Many high-powered companies require non-disclosure agreements that carry a threat of civil action should an employee or ex-employee spill sensitive information. But when the company is the government and the information is state secrets, the consequence of talking goes beyond a lawsuit. If we're talking, we're talking treason. Gavin Hood's latest film "Official Secrets" looks at just such a case, a historic principled violation of the U.K.'s Official Secrets Act.

Keira Knightley plays Katherine Gun, a translator for British intelligence who finds herself in a world-shaking dilemma in 2003. During the march to the Iraq War, Gun's office receives an emailed memo from the U.S. National Security Agency directing the British Government Communications Headquarters employees to aid in blackmailing UN officials ahead of the vote to authorize the war. Gun knows that the dirty-tricks scheme could mean tens of thousands of lost lives in a war justified by a house of cards: the U.S.'s insistence on Saddam Hussein's mythical cache of weapons of mass destruction.

Aghast at being asked to help in secretly rigging a war under the noses of the British people, Gun quickly begins to contemplate acting as a whistleblower. With the help of a journalist-activist go-between, Gun gets the story to The Observer, where reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) runs with it. Soon enough, an angry government begins beating the bushes to find the leaker, prompting another moral choice for Gun. The exploitable immigration status of her husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), and the threat of prosecution prompt Gun to seek legal counsel, which she gets from human-rights barrister Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes).

It's a story worth shining a light on: Gun a hero deserving of a movie-star moment. And yet this docudrama struggles to give feature-length narrative shape to the story in a way that brings it to vibrant dramatic life. It's interesting enough, but one can feel Hood straining -- along with his co-screenwriters Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein -- to squeeze the story for every bit of drama. Mostly that means turning the screws on Gun, with Knightley convincingly interpreting her as equal parts strident and scared at the enormity of her situation. Centering the film around her moral imperative is the way to go, but it presents a storytelling challenge when it comes to not only sustaining interest but building it.

Hood works to thicken the intrigue of his whistleblower story with swaths of a wonky journalistic tale and a legal crusade. The seams begin to show as Hood, in an effort to create third-act tension, focuses on a race against time to save Yasar from deportation, when the real climax involves Gun standing in the dock of a British courtroom as others argue her fate.

"Official Secrets" depicts an important modern story of telling truth to power -- by telling truth to the people. It's ironic that the story's sky-high global stakes somehow fall short: With historic hindsight, the fate of the world holds no suspense, so it's up to the personal story to generate meaty character drama. There, the admirable but somewhat stodgy "Official Secrets" feels spread thin.

— Peter Canavese

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