A few months ago, the San Diego International Film Festival brought in director Gavin Hood and his latest picture Official Secrets for their Film Insider Series. I was enjoying a slice of Craft Pizza Company’s delicious pepperoni, when Hood walked by me. I yelled out, “Eye in the Sky was so underrated.”
He came over and shook my hand, thanking me. After his movie, I wouldn’t be so complimentary when I asked about something in his new film I didn’t care for. We’ll get to that later.
It’s surprising that this movie could be so intriguing, because at this point we’ve seen these type of “deep throat” stories before; and this one, like All the President’s Men, is also based on a true story.
It starts with Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) in a courthouse in London, being informed about the charges against her under the Official Secrets Act (which I’m guessing is how the move got its title). We then flash back to her life in the early 2000s. She translates Mandarin for British Intelligence. Her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) is a Turkish Kurd, working hard at a deli he owns.
Katharine comes across some intelligence that ticks her off. She gets angrier as she watches the news and hears the BBC echo President Bush and the US take on Saddam Hussein — that he has weapons of mass destruction. Yasar doesn’t seem as fired up as she is, which seems odd, considering where he’s from. And as we find out, his immigration status is on thin ice.
When Katharine comes across an email where the NSA is asking GCHQ for help surveilling UN personnel in some swing-vote nations to gain leverage for a vote for military force against Hussein — she decides this is information that should get out. She slyly makes a copy of the email, and passes it along to an activist/pseudo journalist. Well, it gets out and, sh** hits the fan at her work.
A reporter named Martin (Matt Smith), working for The Observer, runs the story. His paper is for the war, but that’s not the reason they’re reluctant to run the piece. The editor is worried about whether or not the email is real. And although at times Hood directs this like it’s a big history lesson, it was smart that instead of bashing us over the head about Bush wanting Blair to be on his side, we get some interesting newsroom scenes and banter among the different types of reporters. At one point, arguing ensues in the newsroom. I can’t give away what mistake was made that causes this, but it was brilliantly conceived.
You’re on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen to Katharine once the GCHQ starts searching for a mole in their midst, but…the movie started with her in court, so we assume they’re going to figure out what she did. Surprisingly, they were still able to squeeze some drama out of the proceedings.
Just as Brian Banks had the California Innocence Project (in a movie last month that hardly anyone saw), Katharine has a group of lawyers that do non-profit work for situations just like this. The lead barrister is played by Ralph Fiennes, who is great in everything he does.
A few scenes in this movie reminded me of A Few Good Men. One scene reminded me of The Visitor (Richard Jenkins). And even though you’ve seen interrogation scenes before, the one here seemed so much more realistic. It wasn’t over-the-top, and the people questioning Katharine were smartly doing their job, instead of yelling veiled threats.
Underrated actor Matthew Goode has a nice role in the film too.
Hood might be more a name for directing blockbusters like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game (which was way better than expected), but he shows he can also handle serious material like this.
Oh, and like 90% of movies that come out these days, there’s a barfing scene.
Some scenes might be a bit slow for some, but I was enthralled (a bit more than my wife was).
3 ½ stars out of 5.
Oh, and with regard to what I said to the director after the movie. He stuck around to do a Q&A with the audience. Since nobody raised their hand at first, I put mine up. When he pointed to me I asked, “How much of a pain in the ass was Helen Mirren on the set of Eye in the Sky?”
As the crowd laughed he said, “Oh, she’s lovely. On the first day she got to the set, we gave her this military outfit and camouflage she had to wear. She said ‘This is what I have to wear?!’ I thought ‘Oh god, my lead actress is going to be difficult.’ Then she said ‘Well, then that’s what I shall wear!’ And she taught me how to take a bow. It was at the Toronto Film Festival, after we got a standing ovation.”
I then said, “I was just trying to be a smart ass. My real question is with how you started the movie. I never like when a movie starts with a scene, and then the whole movie is flashbacks, with the 3rd act going back to that scene. In this movie, the problem I had with that technique being used is we then knew Katharine was going to be charged with a crime. It seemed like it would’ve been much more dramatic if we went through the movie wondering if she would ever be charged, having that same fear she spent that year going through.”
Hood responded, “That’s a great question, and I agree with you. I’ll take it on the chin for that one. I didn’t write it that way, and I think it’s better without that scene at the beginning; but the movie didn’t test as well with audiences. It makes me sick to even admit that…but having that teaser in there, the audiences then sort of knew where it was going.”
Hood shared many great stories with the crowd. We found out the film was shot in 36 days. When asked about Fiennes character cursing out a good friend, we got the scoop behind that real life story.
He talked about the amount of time he spent with the woman this was based on, and how she lost her freedom, and how she risked everything. We also found out she’s still married to that deli owner, and they had a kid.
Hood talked about Knightley always playing strong female characters, and in one movie not wanting to wear a corset (although now, months later, I forget the reason why).
Perhaps the only disappointing thing about the event was walking out, and seeing all the Craft Pizza was gone.