OFFICIAL SECRETS. Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, and Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Gavin Hood. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong coarse language). 112 min.
This American-British drama is based on the experiences of British Intelligence whistleblower, Katharine Gun, whose job exposed her to classified information. She worked for the British security services at the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) surveillance Center in Cheltenham, UK, and she was tasked by the GCHQ to note any suspicious activity.
In the course of her work, Katharine came across a classified memo from the NSA (the US.’s National Security Agency) wanting to gather intelligence against United Nations delegates.
The top-secret memo exposed a joint US-UK spying operation which told her that the US was eavesdropping on diplomats from other countries. The memo detailed how the United States wanted information from Britain about other nations in order to blackmail them to vote in favour of an invasion of Iraq. Gun knew that she and her colleagues were being asked to gather compromising information to manipulate UN representatives into voting for war. Realising this was ethically wrong, she printed the email, handed it to a colleague, and it was subsequently leaked to the media.
The film is a true story of a woman responsible for leaking a letter exposing the United States for participating illegally in an operation designed to blackmail members of the UN Security Council to sanction invasion. The memo endorsed the practice of making sure undecided countries voted for what was politically wanted. The memo was published in the London newspaper, “The Observer”, by journalist, Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and the story created headlines around the world. Members of the Security Council were outraged by the revelation.
In the days to follow, President George W. Bush indicated he no longer needed UN backing and decided to invade Iraq anyway. Katharine Gun was arrested and charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. She was put on trial in 2004, after her Kurdish, asylum-seeking husband was threatened with deportation. In her trial, all charges were dropped by the Prosecution.
This is a highly informative and intense film that illustrates the hypocrisy and duplicity that may characterise politics, government, and media reporting. It reveals the levels of duplicity that can lie underneath political power structures, and it implicates Britain and the US ethically, as major world powers caught in serious wrong-doing.
In the movie, archival footage is used liberally, and Keira Knightley delivers a very powerful performance as Katharine Gun, who in a split-second decided to leak a document that came into her hands. She brings convincing passion to her role. Gun is defended by veteran human rights lawyer, Ben Emerson (Ralph Fiennes) who admired Katharine’s courage and Fiennes delivers a subtle, stirring defence of Gun’s civil liberty. Since the times of the events covered by this movie, detailed opinions about leaks and whistleblowing have come to the fore, and the world exists in an era of modified discernment about whistleblowing, and whistleblowers. The power of this movie is that critically urgent information about political events did become public, and it shows in detail “how” that happened.
This thriller film works dramatically at multiple levels - social, political, and legal. The most fascinating feature of the film, however, is that Gun’s behaviour made no difference at all to nations going to war. War was raged anyway, and thousands of people lost their lives. The film’s basic message remains fundamentally significant: courageous people, like Katharine Gun exist. People like her feel compelled ethically to fight duplicity in an attempt to turn back the tide of unacceptable events. It was political institutions and intelligence-security agencies that failed, not Katharine Gun. In many ways, this is a film that is scarily relevant to current times.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Universal Pictures International
Released November 21, 2019