The topical political thriller, an ambitious attempt to combine contemporary history with the elements of espionage, suspense and film noir, usually follows one of two narrative models. The first was set by All the President’s Men, Alan Pakula’s 1976 account of the Woodward/Bernstein investigation of the Watergate break-in. The second model, established by films such as Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, focuses on the whistleblowers, the men and women who risk careers and lives to expose wrongdoing, placing a human face on the headlines.
More than 40 years and who knows how many political cover-ups since the Pakula film, these models still hold, outlining an ingenious contrast between the struggles of the press with the wall of silence protecting the powerful. We watch reporters negotiate with frightened sources, well-intentioned bureaucrats struggle with their consciences, reliable leads fall apart and powerful institutions place pressure on those who know their secrets. At best, these films can be history lessons and reminders of the significance of ideas like freedom of the press. At worst, they feed our paranoia and cynicism. Most of the time they do both.
Official Secrets smoothly combines both political thriller traditions. It’s the story of Katharine Gun, a British government employee who leaked a confidential e-mail in hopes of preventing a war, and of the reporters at London’s Observer who published her story. Gun (played with strong emotion by Keira Knightley) was a translator working for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters. In 2003 she received a group e-mail from the United States’ National Security Agency asking for assistance in digging up potential blackmail material on United Nations delegates from six countries who opposed the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq. Gun passed the e-mail on to a friend, where it gradually found its way to Observer reporters Martin Bright and Ed Vulliamy (played respectively by earnest Matt Smith and flamboyant Rhys Ifans) at a time when their paper, like most media outlets in both the United States and the United Kingdom, was willing to accept — and parrot — the White House’s dubious stories about weapons of mass destruction.
Director Gavin Hood follows the conventions of the genre faithfully, but skillfully juggles the heavy loads of historical data without losing sympathy for the human lives in his story. In an ironic twist on the Woodward/Bernstein model, it’s a story in which the labors of the press lead not to clarity but to an official obscurity. The film rightfully extols the efforts of both the Observer reporters and Gun’s legal team (led by Ralph Fiennes), but their achievements may be dampened by our awareness of what transpired afterward.
But that’s the nature of the political thriller. At best, films like Official Secrets find authentic moments of heroism and celebrate ethical victories, but temper their admiration with the often bitter reality that they are celebrating small calculated triumphs but not decisive victories. Despite the high expectations created by All the President’s Men — in which Two Brave Knights Slay the Dragon of Yorba Linda — our admiration for the stories of Gun and others comes with the knowledge that there will be other dragons on the road ahead.