Keira Knightley plays Katharine Gun, a translator for British intelligence who leaked an email exposing corruption by the forces seeking to invade Iraq in 2003, in this gripping true story.
In early 2003, when the George W. Bush administration was pushing for an invasion of Iraq, with the support of Britain’s government, headed by Tony Blair, a story broke in The Observer, a weekly British newspaper published in London. A reporter had gotten hold of a top secret email from an official of the N.S.A., one of the United States intelligence agencies, sent to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, asking for help in a secret and illegal effort to bug a group of United Nations offices, from countries that were on the fence about Iraq. The idea was to use information from wiretaps to pressure these countries to go along with the proposed invasion. After this email was printed on the front page of the newspaper, there was naturally an outraged reaction from the critics of Bush and Blair, while the security agencies tried to claim that the email was a fake, and at the same time scrambled to find the person who had leaked it. The leaker was a translator at GCHQ named Katharine Gun. Official Secrets, a film by Gavin Hood, dramatizes her story, and the consequences of what she did.
We first see Gun, played by Keira Knightley, at her court appearance in 2004. She is charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. How does she plead? Before we hear the answer, we flash back a year earlier as she arrives at her regular GCHQ job in the morning, bantering with fellow employees, including a conversation with one colleague that appears to be in Chinese. And as we discover eventually, Gun was born in Taiwan and is proficient in Mandarin, which is why she obtained this job as a translator. The email from the NSA is one of many such communications that appears on the screens of all the workers there, but she notices it, and is visibly upset by it. Like everyone else, she knows that the UN inspectors have found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and she is skeptical of the Bush/Blair arguments and fearful of the UK getting pulled into a war. The steady drumbeat of propaganda in the media bothers her more and more, and the next day she decides to make a copy of the email in question, and then gives it to an acquaintance in the antiwar movement.
The film gets really interesting at this point, as we meet a lot of new characters, chiefly the editor and staff at The Observer, who take some time verifying the authenticity of the email, and then debating whether or not to publish the piece. Rhys Ifans has a small but juicy part as a profane anti-establishment reporter who helps confirm that the email is real, but the main author of the piece is played by former Doctor Who actor Matt Smith.
Meanwhile, Katharine ends up confessing, and turns to a group of civil liberties attorneys whose chief is played by Ralph Fiennes. The personal drama gets pretty intense—among other factors involved is that Katharine’s husband is a Kurdish Iraqi that the government threatens with deportation in order to put pressure on her. But what makes the picture really admirable is that it sees that the issues are greater than the fate of this one woman. The screenplay, which is based on a book called “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War,” explores a range of legal and moral issues. Britain’s Official Secrets Act, it turns out, makes it illegal for any whistleblower to leak anything, regardless of the issues involved. The legal team has to figure out a way for Katharine to plead not guilty and win an acquittal despite the apparent invulnerability of this law.
Keira Knightley does an excellent job portraying an ordinary person experiencing fear every step of the way, yet continuing to make decisions that may sacrifice her own self-interest to help prevent this war. Hood, the director, doesn’t inflate the action with emphatic flourishes of heroism, but sticks close to the reality of the situation, and this makes the film genuinely gripping. We know, of course, that Bush and Blair went ahead with the invasion without UN approval, so this film is also a story about what might have, and what should have been.
In 2019, we’re seeing how important the courage of whistleblowers can be to the survival of democracy. Official Secrets shows how a person of courage and conviction defied, against all odds, the overwhelming force of government power.