Gavin Hood is an extremely inconsistent director (and calling the man who signed his name to X-Men Origins: Wolverine "inconsistent" is paying him a very nice big compliment, I think), but his last feature is one that left me inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Eye in the Sky, from 2015, is one of the decade's most airtight thrillers, somehow managing to fill 102 minutes with sweaty tension while depicting characters who deliberately and conspicuously aren't doing anything. His newest work, Official Secrets, doesn't live up to the standard that film set, which I suppose was probably inevitable, but it does find him working somewhat of the same vibe, and probably not by accident, working with the same editor, Megan Gill, the same composer, Mark Kilian, and much of the same sound team - all the people broadly responsible for setting the rhythm of a film, in other words. And it's still a good deal more engaging than anything with so many scenes of people talking rather than doing would have any obvious reason to be.

Once again, the subject is the morality of making choices versus going out of your way to not make choices; once again, the backdrop is the disastrous series of military excursions gathered under the blanket name "the war on terror". This time, it's also a true story about Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator working for a British intelligence agency in 2003, in the weeks before the United States and United Kingdom led a military coalition into Iraq. In February of that year, a memo was sent to everyone in Gun's office that more or less openly declared that those two governments were looking to blackmail the rest of the United Nations Security Council into going along with the war; after a short spate of furious doubt, she leaked the memo to the press, managing to interrupt the rush to war by roughly the length of one afternoon. Months later, she was charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, mostly on the grounds that the Blair and Bush governments were embarrassed to have been caught.

Official Secrets is doing a couple of things, but the thing it's doing the most is jumping out to remind us of how insanely fucked up things were back in 2003, and how we've more or less never gotten around to unfucking them in all the years since. The screenplay, adapted by Gregory Bernstein & Sara Bernstein and Hood from a book by Marcia Mitchell & Thomas Mitchell, doesn't dilly-dally in setting the stakes or making arguments about what's going on: it assumes that its viewer agrees that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible thing that should have been avoided at all costs, that Katharine Gun is an unambiguous hero even if she did kind of feel ambivalent herself about what to do, at first, and that the only bad thing about her leak was that it didn't end up doing a whit of good. As a person who does in fact agree with all of those things, this caused me no trouble, but it does feel like the film is cheating a little bit by not actually getting around to setting up its own narrative stakes and emotional engagement.

Truth be told, plenty of Official Secrets is, in fact, a bit sloppy. The film's second half, dedicated to Katharine's legal struggle and the cunning gambits of her lawyer, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) to deal with his client's obvious guilt by putting the war itself on trial, is pretty smooth sailing, benefiting immeasurably from the commitment with which the two stars dive into the chatty, procedure-heavy dialogue, along with a few big emotional outburst moments for Knightley (who hasn't been this good in a while) to keep the film's heart beating. The first half, now that's where all the problems lie. The film completely loses track of how it wants to tell this story at all. It starts with a very fine, tight opening that finds Katharine shifting from banal office worker to outraged citizen of the world, while carefully keeping all of that tamped down where nobody else can see it; and once she figures out how to leak the memo in a way that will keep anyone from tracing it back to her, the film simply stops.

And then it restarts, and instead of being a political moral thriller, it's a very fine, tight newspaper ethics drama. Martin Bright (Matt Smith), a wannabe crusading journalist at The Observer, is disgusted by his paper's war cheerleading, and when the memo crosses his desk, he immediately wants to publish a story about it. Thus follows a frenzied 15 or so minutes, in which he and his colleagues find ways of sneaking around U.S. intelligence, confirming unconfirmable facts, and dealing with the fallout from one astonishingly silly human error. It's edited with the machine-gun precision of the very best "people angrily stating things at phones" procedurals, and shot by gifted cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister with a nod to the boxy claustrophobia of the finest of all political journalism thrillers, All the President's Men.

The film then stops again, and restarts with Katharine, who now must make a moral choice: if she says nothing, she'll never get caught. But if she says nothing, it will be too easy for the governments involved to write the whole thing off as a hoax. This then shades without stopping into the very fine, tight legal drama.

So the thing isn't that any of this is bad. In fact, much of it, or even all of it, is good. The editing never flags, the cast is the kind of top-notch collection of pros you can only truly get from assembling a whole bunch of Brits in one place, the themes are so carefully drawn out of the characters' experiences that it never feels like an angry harangue, 16 years after the fact. The thing is that the film simply doesn't hang together. Effectively until Fiennes shows up, Official Secrets keeps shifting from story to story, genre to genre, style to style. The newspaper thriller it becomes for an act is an excellent newspaper thriller; but it is so terribly wedged into everything else the film has going on that it's still vaguely distressing to see it play out, especially in retrospect.

Still and all, if every film's worst problem were that its uniformly great individual scenes don't work in concert, there'd be no such thing as a bad movie. Official Secrets isn't the frightfully well-built machine that Eye in the Sky was, but for a message-heavy political thriller about discussing the consequence of actions, it's pretty damn entertaining, on top of being suitably enraging. Hell knows, this isn't the kind of thing everybody should rush right out to see, but it's a strong execution of a very straightforward kind of genre film, and a smart throwback to a very different age of politically-motivated cinema.