Well, we’re off to the polls, again. As is always the case right now, it’s not so much an honor to participate in democracy as it is a horrific, exhausted last stand. Or to put it another way, right now it seems like we are all Captain America, and none of us are especially sure we can do this all day anymore. Three years of trench warfare with Brexit, three years of watching every opposition party listen to their worst angels again and again, three years of endless, constant battering by endless, constant corruption have put everyone on the back foot. I’ve spent my life trying to be as politically engaged as possible. Even I’m sick of it.
When I realized that last week, I did what I always do. I went to the movies. And they did what they always do too. I accidentally double billed myself a pair of movies about people who did the right thing in the worst of situations. I needed it. It helped. Here’s how.
The Report, directed by Scott Z. Burns from his own script, follows Dan Jones, the congressional aide put in charge of investigating the CIA’s post-9111 use of torture. Cutting between the present, with Jones confessing to have ‘relocated’ the report, to the past where we see the pressure build, it’s a movie that presents like a Sorkin fan’s emergency oxygen tank. People are always talking, usually moving, and the machinery of government is everywhere.
What makes it interesting and different, what makes it work, are three factors. The first is the careful, clever way that Burns weaponises the CIA’s own fondness for geographical ambiguity against them. Much of the movie involves flashbacks exploring Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Jessen (T. Ryder Smith)’s experimentation with torture. You won’t hear the phrase Enhanced Interrogation here by the way, this was torture. We’re almost never told where they are, we rarely see them working thee same case more than once but what we always see is what Jones always sees; the brutality, the degradation and the total lack of credible intelligence in return. It’s a tough watch in many places, not least because your instinct is to be annoyed by the cartoonish evil of Hodge and Smith’s double act. But this is what they did. This is how they did it. The annoyance is valid but letting it pull the teeth of the evil these men perpetrated is not and by presenting them this way the movie prevents that.
The second element that works is the movie’s willingness to explore and dive into the muddy waters of pre and post administration handover. Jon Hamm, a man basically incapable of bad work, is excellent as Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough. We, and Jones, meet him first when Jones comes to Washington looking for work. McDonough suggests he get some experience in specific fields, sets him on the path that leads to him being given the investigation and ultimately returns in the third act as an adversary. The truism ‘politics is messy’ hits like a punch to the kidneys here, as we see that McDonough’s patience for his seemingly inevitable job has led to a compromise in his morals. A compromise everyone makes. A compromise Washington is built on and a compromise Jones refuses to fall in line with.
Jones, as portrayed by Adam Driver, is the third reason the movie works. That first scene with McDonough could just as easily be about Driver, who enlisted in the Marines after the 9/11 attack. He served just under three years before a medical discharge and has talked at length about how acting has helped him close the emotional and psychological circles that military life could not. He’s an interesting figure, reticent in a remarkably articulate manner and that makes him a perfect choice for Jones. Driver is a soldier turned actor, an outsider who has joined another outsider clan to impersonate other people and his distance, and unease, lock into the role of investigator perfectly. He’s dogged, obsessive, painfully aware of both. He raises his voice precisely once in the movie and remains both aware and at peace with his actions but not the system within which they exist. The movie revolves around Jones’ relocation of the report but ultimate decision not to leak it. The movie finishes with the report, massively redacted, being released and Jones leaving Washington, burnt out and disgusted. The right thing done, but the cost for it very much collected.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in 2003, Katharine Gun got an email. A translator for GCHQ, Gun and her colleagues were asked to assist the NSA in a short term intelligence gathering operation on various members of the UN Security Council. The objective was simple; the US needed support for a UN resolution backing the Iraq War. GCHQ were being tasked to get them the blackmail material to do it.
Official Secrets, directed by Gavin Hood and adapted by Gregory and Sara Bernstein, and Hood, from Marcia & Thomas Mitchell’s The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War, picks up the story from that moment all the way through to Gun’s appearance in court. It’s a fascinating watch next to The Report, the democratic temples of Washington replaced by small English villages and Dan Jones’ soul searching runs replaced by Gun finding out the memo had been picked up when she popped out to the shop.
There’s a constant danger, with stories like this in this country, for everything to be made cosy. The corners are knocked off all the time on this sleepy, grumpy little island and we sometimes find ourselves coping with the existential terror of modern politics by treating it like a game or a game show. We’re all so busy stroking our forelocks and not making eye contact with our betters that we forget our betters are only there because we put them there. That’s how you got the moral vacuum of Have I Got News For You? That’s how you get Boris Johnson. That’s how you get where we are now.
Viewed through that lens, Official Secrets is both satisfyingly sharp toothed and poignantly quaint. Here the smug suit in the corner of the newsroom is worried about the relationship with Blair’s government and the rock star reporter who knows the truth can be safely parked in the US and ignored. In fact, the one part of the movie that almost doesn’t land is, ironically, the spiritual twins of Jessen and Mitchell in The Report. Conleth Hill as editor Roger Alton and Rhys Ifans as reporter Ed Vulliamy are, bluntly, very very awful when they first appear. Orders of magnitude louder than every other cast member they drown out the subtle, better work of Matthew Goode and Matt Smith and play like the comic relief the movie thinks it needs. Until, that is, later scenes temper them both and you discover that both men were pretty much just like that. In fact, Vulliamy was so delighted with his portrayal that he refers to Ifans as his ‘alter idem’.
These two aside, it’s a deliberately low key movie, anchored by a pair of extraordinarily good, nailed down performances from Kiera Knightley and Matt Smith. Knightley, as Katharine Gun, is the same kind of casting master stroke as Driver playing Dan Jones. The latter is a muscular Jimmy Stewart, Captain America denied war but not the good fight. The former is Lizzie Bennett, Elizabeth Turner, the dictionary definition of an English rose with all the fundamental conservatism that goes with that. England looks like Kiera Knightley, or tells itself it does, just as middle America looks like Adam Driver, or at least wants to. Seeing both of them subvert those expectations as they do here is as delicious as it is subversive and it gives both movies the engines that drive them.
In Knightley’s case, that engine is one part pragmatism, one part fury and one part terror. Gun makes the call within about ten minutes of the movie’s opening and takes every choice knowing full well what it might mean. An early highlight sees her visit an old friend who is part of the anti-war movement. Horrified she wants to talk business, her friend asks if GCHQ knows she’s there and demands her phone. Gun hands it over, battery already out and explains she called from a pay phone. It’s a beautifully turned, chilling little moment that says more about the realities of intelligence work than a dozen Bond movies ever could.
That pragmatism is shot through with rage at what they’re being asked to do, how little anyone seems to care and abject terror at what she could lose. Gun wasn’t just put on trial, after being parked in the system for a year, her husband was threatened with deportation. While it was never carried out, the movie does an excellent job for exploring the abject terror you feel when not only have you done the right thing, but the system disagrees and it Sees you. Knightley, for her part, does an excellent job of showing Gun’s focus and fundamental ethical frameworks. She saw something wrong, she did what she thought was right and, terrified as she is, she sticks to that. It’s a subtle, clenched performance that will win none of the awards it deserves but the movie’s worth seeing for her alone.
That isn’t to say the rest of the cast aren’t strong, because they are. Matthew Goode is great as Peter Beaumont, Alton’s gentler number two and Matt Smith is quietly astonishing as Martin Bright. The reporter who ultimately broke the case, Smith plays Bright (Who, delightfully, appears to cameo at one point transferring a phone call to himself) with all the care and presence he was sometimes allowed to bring to Doctor Who. He’s an old school hack, a man who senses a brilliant story and wants to sink every tooth he has into it but he’s not as scarred or calloused as his bosses. Bright believes in what Gun did and is just as principled, just as driven if a little less formal. He’s portrayed as a fundamentally good man in a difficult job and Gun’s defense is ultimately full of people just like that, just like her. Principled men and women, acutely aware their voices may not be heard, or may not make a difference, terrified, doing it anyway.
You can see where I’m going with this.
Daniel Jones went on to found two investigative firms. Katharine Gun moved to Turkey with her husband and daughter. In 2009, a resolution was signed into law banning the CIA from torture. In 2004, we went to war anyway and are almost two decades into a quagmire of foreign policy disasters and bovine institutional cruelty that, last week, ended with a man stabbing two people to death before being killed by police on a bridge my partner uses daily. Nothing about this is right. Nothing about this is fair. Nothing about this will change if we don’t show up. That’s what these two complex, difficult, worthwhile movies taught me.
I voted this morning.
Polls close at 10pm.
Please join me.
Official Secrets is JUST still in theatres
The Report is on Amazon Prime now