Official Secrets: a modest fictional dramatisation of a whistleblower’s ordeal

Gavin Hood, “Official Secrets” (2019)

As fictional dramatisations of real events go, “Official Secrets” passes muster in its narrative of a translator working for the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) who follows her conscience and becomes a whistleblower to try to stop an illegal war in which hundreds of thousands if not millions of people will die. Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), working as a Chinese-to-English translator in early 2003, is sent an email memo from a senior official at the United States National Security Agency asking for GCHQ support in its attempts to spy on United Nations Security Council members Angola, Bulgaria, Chile,Cameroon, Guinea and Pakistan so as to obtain information that could be used to blackmail these countries into voting for resolutions favouring the US and its goals and objectives. At the time, the US government was preparing to invade Iraq to depose its leader, President Saddam Hussein, on the basis that his government still possessed illegal chemical weapons. Believing that making the memo public would expose the underhanded tactics being used by the US and the UK governments to pressure the UN into approving an invasion and war, Gun leaks the memo to a friend who is acquainted with Martin Bright (Matt Smith), a journalist with The Observer newspaper.

After verifying that the memo, written by Frank Koza, is genuine, Bright and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans), an American news correspondent, convince the newspaper editor to publish their report which makes front-page news a month after Gun had given the memo to her friend. GCHQ then goes on the warpath to find out who leaked the memo; after the staff go through a round of questioning and then are forced to go through another round, Gun gives herself up. She and her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish national on a temporary visa, are subjected to continuous hounding by the authorities which include Yasar being held by police for deportation.

The US invasion of Iraq goes ahead regardless of the UN Security Council’s decision not to approve it and Gun is released. She contacts human rights organisation Liberty whose lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) agrees to defend her if the British government charges her with treason under the Offical Secrets Act. Sure enough, several months later charges are brought against Gun and she and Emmerson agree that she will plead on a defence of necessity, that breaching the Act of necessary to stop an illegal war from going ahead.

The narrative suffers from breaks in continuity and points of view but otherwise it rockets along at a fairly fast pace which maintains the tension and keeps viewer attention riveted to the screen and Gun’s fate. The actors do good work with the script and give convincing performances, though some of Knightley’s lines do seem more like sloganeering advocacy than deeply felt opinion. Fiennes and Smith tend to steal their scenes from other actors though Knightley holds up well in the brief scenes she shares with both actors. In later parts of the film, characters suddenly seem to change their tune for no reason other than to hurry the narrative along. The climax may be a letdown for viewers. Apart from these minor technical faults, the film is worth viewing as an example of why people may turn whistleblower and the harassment and bullying they suffer as a result. The film might have been more realistic if it had shown Bright and Emmerson also suffering harassment but then the straightforward narrative might have become unnecessarily complicated and bogged down in detail.

The film is fairly modest in line with its subject matter – ultimately what Gun did had little effect on the US decision to go to war – but its themes and the issues raised about personal integrity versus loyalty to one’s employer, be it a spy agency or a newspaper eager to court favours from the government, or loyalty to loved ones who just want to keep their heads down and avoid the spotlight, are always important and relevant no matter what the historical context is.

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