Katharine (Knightley) works as a Chinese translator at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham in England – the home of British signals intelligence. She is dark-haired (the real Katharine is blonde), sans make-up, maybe a little dowdy. It is 2003 and prime minister Tony Blair and US president George W. Bush are pushing for a war against Saddam Hussein. They want the United Nations Security Council to back the invasion plan, allowing both countries to declare it legal but the votes of the temporary members of the Security Council are not solid.

Matthew Goode plays a journalist in <i>Official Secrets</i>.

Matthew Goode plays a journalist in Official Secrets.

Thus, a memo crosses Katharine’s monitor. A senior official of the US National Security Agency asks British intelligence to help with hacking and surveilling the communications of six wavering countries on the security council – Chile, Bulgaria, Angola, Cameroon, Guinea and Pakistan. Gun is appalled by its implications: the US is asking Britain to spy on third countries, in order to justify a war for which there is no legal basis. She wonders what to do about it.

She leaks the memo to a former colleague, who sends it on to a political activist. The activist passes it to Martin Bright (Matt Smith) a reporter at The Observer. Rhys Ifans gives us the film’s most colourful character as Ed Vulliamy, the paper’s fiery and expletive-laden Washington correspondent, who’s frustrated that his own newspaper’s support for the war is compromising its journalism. Ralph Fiennes joins the fight when Scotland Yard charges Gun with breaching the Official Secrets Act, nine months after The Observer finally breaks the story.

All of this happened; as far as I can glean, the movie is unusually accurate. That may be the influence of its South-African born director Gavin Hood, who has a strong track record with this kind of torn-from-recent-history material. His 2005 film Tsotsi was acutely sharp about the problems of crime in the new South Africa. He followed that with Rendition, Ender’s Game and Eye in the Sky, a taut British thriller about spying and surveillance. His work here is understated: the film builds quietly but inexorably. All of the characters appear to have their correct names, even the ones you want to boo.

The script, based on a book by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, keeps layering in complexity, refusing to go dumb. And Knightley’s performance gets steelier as she struggles to overcome her fears – especially when the authorities try to deport her Turkish Kurd husband Yasar (Adam Bakri).

Timely does not begin to describe this film: when governments lie to us about the causes of war, when the press lies down with the dogs of war, when intelligence agencies no longer dare to speak truth to power, we need stories that stand up for the truth, even when it’s hard to find. The whistleblower may just be the new superhero of our culture, without need for cape or gun.

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