“Official Secrets” is a whistleblower movie, a genre that shouldn’t have to exist but, depressingly, necessarily, does. The narrative bones come down to us from “All the President’s Men” (1976), among others: The average-joe heroes, the uncovering of foul corporate or governmental deeds, the meetings in underlit parking garages, the raging (and justified) paranoia.
Movies like Michael Mann’s “The Insider” (1999) revived the genre for the new millennium, and the lies of the Iraq War brought on a whole new wave of rueful and truthful suspense films: “Fair Game” (2010), about the Valerie Plame affair; Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” (2016); “The Post” (2017), about the Pentagon Papers in the 1960s. Coming up we have “The Report,” starring Adam Driver as a Senate staffer looking into the CIA’s post-9/11 “detention and interrogation” program.
But first we have “Official Secrets,” with Keira Knightley playing Katharine Gun, a translator for Britain’s Government Communications headquarters (GCHQ) who leaked a damning NSA memo in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and saw her life almost undone in retaliation. Directed by Gavin Hood, whose last film was the drone-warfare gripper “Eye in the Sky” (2015), it’s a fairly stodgy entry in the whistleblowing genre that’s lit up by its star’s unfussy conviction. If it takes glamorous movie stars to get us to pay attention to these stories, well, I guess that’s the price we’ll all have to pay.
Knightley’s Katharine Gun is a low-level cubicle jockey, liberal in politics, apolitical at her job. A keep-to-your-lane sort. One day in 2003, she and others at GCHQ received an e-mail from an NSA staff chief in the United States requesting British intelligence’s assistance in bugging the United Nations offices of countries who stood to oppose the US push to invade Iraq. The NSA’s intent: to gather dirt or other information that would allow the United States to sway the UN vote approving the invasion.
The way “Official Secrets” tells it with engrossing, steady style, Gun is appalled, prints out a copy of the memo and takes it home, giving it to a friend with journalism contacts and expecting nothing to come of the matter. A month later, it’s on the front page of England’s The Guardian and Gun ultimately finds herself charged with violating England’s Official Secrets 1989 act; i.e., treason. Worth noting: The 1989 act was revised from the original 1911 law to strip out language allowing for leaks in the name of “public interest.” In common parlance, Gun is screwed.
The drama of “Official Secrets,” then, is that of an ordinary person like you or me (who looks like Keira Knightley, but never mind) thrust unwillingly into the spotlight and risking possible imprisonment for revealing an ugly truth. The surprise is that the glare of that spotlight only stiffens Gun’s spine. Hood and his co-writers, adapting Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s book “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion,” depict the flurry of people rising to Katharine’s defense and offense while slowly charting the awakening of one woman’s commitment to her moral beliefs.
Gun has a strong reason to want to stay under the radar: She’s married to Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish man whose stay in Britain would be — and is, in the film’s nerve-wracking and somewhat neat climax — threatened by his wife’s revelations. The husband remains an underwritten character, understandably freaked out, and much of the later scenes in “Official Secrets” are dominated by Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson, the human rights lawyer who took on Gun’s case.
Because Gun is initially so reticent about taking center stage — Knightley gives the heroine an appealing, unshowy modesty — the scrum of reporters around the story (played by a solid cast, including Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Conleth Hill, and a scenery-chewing Rhys Ifans) tends to shout her out. But as Fiennes’s crafty Emmerson comes to the fore, the kind of natural chess player who thinks four moves ahead of everyone else, “Official Secrets” becomes a partnership between a woman intent on doing the right thing and her crafty moral and legal guide to the abyss.
It’s an occasionally plodding but rarely dull movie, and one whose stakes outweigh its impact as drama. In the end, the message is both illuminating and disturbing: Sometimes the only way to save yourself from being punished for revealing a secret is to threaten to reveal all of them. “Official Secrets” scratches the surface of a deep and dark universe of things we’re not supposed to know but should.
Directed by Gavin Hood. Written by Hood, Sara Bernstein, and Gregory Bernstein, based on a book by Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell. Starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Adam Bakri. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Boston Common. 112 minutes. R (language).