CALLERI: Keira Knightley shines in ‘Official Secrets,’ a gripping spy and journalism thriller

Nick Wall/IFC FilmsIn “Official Secrets,” Keira Knightley plays a British government employee who, during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, is in legal jeopardy after she releases secret documents to a journalist.

In “Official Secrets,” Katharine Gun is a spy, albeit an indoor operative who works for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the Cheltenham suburb of sprawling London.

The GCHQ is an intelligence and security organization responsible for providing information assurance and signals intelligence to the government and military of the United Kingdom. Gun (superbly acted with vibrant determination by Keira Knightley) examines and analyzes data from around the world, red-flagging material that has details hinting at threats against the vital safety of British subjects.

Katharine’s dramatic true story is not well-known in the United States. The suspenseful “Official Secrets” might change that. It’s directed by Gavin Hood, of the very good “Eye In The Sky,” and written by him, Gregory Bernstein, and Sara Bernstein, from the book “The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War: Katharine Gun And The Secret Plot To Sanction The Iraq Invasion” by Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell.

The movie blends two key elements that have the potential to create an engaging thriller: dirty little secrets and journalists willing to expose those secrets. You need robust, often-heated editorial room debates about the decision to publish or not publish the big story. This potential blossoms into a supercharged film.

The fast-paced “Official Secrets” clicks along like an investigative procedural, although there’s less actual involvement by law enforcement officials than there is a focus on a young woman whose moral compass causes her to take a stand. She’s also a little bit naive.

In the run-up to United States President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, his administration is striving in public declarations, and also hushed behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, to create momentum for going to war. The United Kingdom is sought as a key ally.

She’s a well-regarded government worker, but Katharine is infuriated with Prime Minister Tony Blair because of what she sees is his misleading the British public in supporting Bush’s war cry. She screams “bloody liar” whenever Blair pops up on television.

Because of her position, Katharine is one of a number of people in the British government who receives a secret request that seems to sanction blackmail. Her department at GCHQ is expected to cooperate with the U.S. and its National Security Agency with a covert plan to spy on United Nations Security Council members. The goal is to force the countries to vote yes on invading Iraq.

This disturbs Katharine so much that she authorizes a friend to give a copy of the plan to journalist Martin Bright (an excellent Matt Smith) at The Observer. This is treason. The film then shifts from being a study in political gamesmanship to being a crackerjack journalism thriller. The exclusive page one story stuns the U.K. and Blair’s administration. Every job in her department is threatened.

There’s still some solid movie remaining and Katherine’s legal jeopardy is pinpointed when the situation endangers both her standing at GCHQ and her marriage to her husband Yasar (a very good Adam Bakri), who’s a Kurdish Turk is seeking British citizenship. Enter a commanding Ralph Fiennes, mesmerizing as Gun’s attorney Ben Emmerson when she’s confronted with criminal charges.

The film delivers tension and a raft of colorful supporting players. Matthew Goode is the calm stalwart reporter and Rhys Ifans is the angry shaggy newshound. Director Hood never lets spy technology clutter up this very human story. The screenwriters make the complexities accessible.

Katherine Gun faces many challenges. She has to overcome fear and guilt in order to succeed at what she believes is an ethical summons to do what’s right. “Official Secrets” succeeds mightily on its road to telling the truth.

LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE: This is definitely the year for movies, documentary and narrative, about rock and roll icons. There’s a joyful celebration going on regarding this musical biography about Linda Ronstadt, the woman considered by most to be the first female rock star. However, there’s also a bittersweet feeling that rises from the reality that although we have Ronstadt’s recordings, we can no longer hear her sing in public.

She was one of the most successful, influential, and versatile female singers of the latter half of the 20th-century. Because of mentoring by Ronstadt, Emmy Lou Harris has a career. The Eagles owe their existence to her.

Almost everything that Ronstadt touched (and sang) turned to gold. She refused to settle for one style, singing popular interpretations of American songbook standards, classical operetta, country-western, and traditional Mexican canciones. Some of her family’s genealogy is rooted in Mexico.

The film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, uses wonderful footage, flawless musical tracks (she truly was a hitmaker), and interviews with her friends and colleagues, including a saddened Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Dolly Parton, Aaron Neville, David Geffen, and Cameron Crowe, among others. There are only hints about her romantic relationships. This documentary is about music.

Ronstadt narrates and appears briefly. Parkinson's disease has silenced her extraordinary singing voice; however, she says she “can’t NOT sing,” and even tries on occasion at home when the mood strikes her. A moment with her nephew Peter Ronstadt on acoustic guitar and cousin Bobby Ronstadt on accordion is pure magic.

Regarding Parkinson’s, Ronstadt faces it with positive determination. “How ya gonna live?” is her credo. A memorable life. A beautiful movie.

    

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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