(2019) Biographical Drama (IFC) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Tamsin Grieg, John Heffernan, Clive Francis, Kenneth Cranham, Jack Farthing, Katherine Kelly, Conleth Hill, Hattie Morahan, Shaun Dooley, Monica Dolan, Chris Larkin, Peter Guinness, Jeremy Northam, Hanako Footman Directed by Gavin Hood
There is a fundamental question when you hold a position within a government and that is this: do you work for the government, or for the people it represents? Not all of those who toil in government positions understand the distinction.
Katherine Gun (Knightley) works as a Mandarin translator for GCHQ – essentially the British version of the NSA – interpreting diplomatic and military communiques and writing reports. It’s a low-level job requiring high security clearance. At night, she goes home and watches the telly with her Turkish immigrant husband Yasar (Bakri) and shouting at the television as she watches American officials making speeches justifying their intent to go to war with Iraq and knowing that nothing that they’re saying is supported by fact.
The straw that breaks the camel’s back, however, is an NSA memo that is distributed to the GCHQ requesting information on six UN delegates on the UN Security Council who are standing in the way of that body approving the American invasion of Iraq. This is patently illegal by British law, but because this is a classified document, it is protected by the Official Secrets Act of 1989, a Thatcher-era British law that broadens what can and can’t be leaked to the press.
Understanding the ramifications of what she’s doing, Gun gives a copy of the memo to an anti-war activist who in turn forwards it to the offices of the Observer, an English newspaper. The Observer, like much of the conservative British press, had officially supported war (despite the evidence that the overwhelming majority of the UK was against it). While gung-ho activist reporter Ed Vullamy (Ifans), a seething mass of liberal anger wants to rush this bombshell to press, calmer heads like foreign correspondent Peter Beaumont (Goode) want to first verify that the document and make sure it’s authentic – you know, do the job the press is actually supposed to do.
That job falls to reporter Martin Bright (Smith) who diligently looks into the authorship of the memo. Eventually, the story goes to press but despite the outrage, the United States invades without a U.N. resolution and nearly 20 years later we’re still there.
Of course, all hell breaks loose at the GCHQ and the various people who work there who had access to the memo are interrogated. Not wanting to see her colleagues subjected to a witch hunt, Gun confesses. She is eventually arrested and after a year, charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. On the advice of Bright (relayed through their mutual friend), Gun retains Ben Emmerson (Fiennes), founder of the activist legal group Liberty that defends British civil rights (think of a smaller scale ACLU). The government, seeking to make an example of Gun, undertake to harass and in general make her life miserable even before the charges can be filed. In the meantime, she is terrified that her husband will be deported.
This is a story on the level of that of Valerie Plame and Edward Snowden, of those who chose conscience over safety. Gun is most certainly a liberal hero and is treated as such by the film and South African director Gavin Hood, who has made two other films (Redacted and Eye in the Sky) about the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
The film has a crackerjack cast led by Knightley, who has in recent years done a lot of period work. I suppose this is also a bit of a period piece but at least this one is set after the Regency Era. She plays Gun as an impulsive and passionate woman who hadn’t looked to become a spy but became one anyway. When faced with a moral dilemma, she responded with the kind of courage that is rare. Understanding that a prison sentence is inevitable as would be massive personal consequences, would any of us have stood for what we felt was right? As much as I would like to think I would, I suspect that I – like most people – would opt for what is convenient. Knightley gives Gun a kind of vulnerability that makes her relatable as she second-guesses her decision as it becomes terrifyingly clear the ramifications of what she has done to her marriage and standing. Gun is not always heroic here and that makes the movie stronger.
Smith and Ifans, as reporters of opposing demeanors, both do impressive work which again, considering how strong this cast is, can be no easy feat. Hood, who co-wrote the film, tends to get bogged down in legal details during the third act and the nearly two hour movie begins to drag at that point. It is a bit exhausting by that point. Still, in an era where governments seem to be marching ever alarmingly to the right, it behooves us to remember how important it is for people of conscience to stand up and say “this is wrong,” even if it doesn’t make a difference immediately. In the long run, it makes every difference.
REASONS TO SEE: A really top-notch cast with particularly impressive performances by Knightley, Ifans and Smith.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little bit too long and gets bogged down in legal details.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In real life, Gun’s husband was deported to Turkey where he now lives along with Gun and their young daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Liam Gallagher: As It Was