What would you do if you had the opportunity to prevent a war? Official Secrets tells the true story of whistleblower Katharine Gun who, in an undeniable feat of bravery, leaked highly sensitive information to the public in the hopes of preventing the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Directed by Gavin Hood and starring Keira Knightley, Official Secrets not only tells Katharine’s story but also asks us to examine our own sense of morality when faced with difficult, and in this case illegal, decisions.
In 2003 the world was on the brink of war with the Middle East. Convinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was in possession of nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapons (it was later confirmed that the warheads found in Iraq predated these claims), former US President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried, not quite successfully, to convince the United Nations to lead a coalition of forces into Iraq to intervene with Hussein and his dictatorship under the pretence that his alleged ties with al-Qaeda put the rest of the world’s nations in danger.
In January of that year, Katharine Gun was working as a Mandarin translator for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), collecting signals intelligence for the Government and armed forces when she received a memo from a US intelligence agency requesting the collection of intel on UN nations for the purpose of blackmailing a swing vote. Disturbed by this apparent lack of ethics, Katharine printed a copy and organised for it to be leaked to the British media. In doing so, Katharine directly violated what is known as the Official Secrets Act, a law that prohibits the disclosure of secret and sensitive information.
A role that is superbly suited to Knightley’s range and cadence. Indeed, best known for her period work, Knightley tackles this period of modern history with absolute aplomb, giving this cinematic interpretation of Ms Gun all the care and sensitivity she deserves. Vilified by her government for committing treason, Knightley brilliantly expresses the emotional turmoil of someone who, in their eagerness to do what they know is right, has inadvertently put their entire life and the people in it into the firing line. Fierce and moving, Knightley’s devotion to telling Gun’s story with respect is palpable and she does an incredible job of tapping into the audience’s conscience, forcing us to question what we would and wouldn’t be capable of doing given the right circumstances.
Would we have the same strength to risk our entire future if it meant saving thousands of people? Instinctively one might say ‘yes’ but as we see with Katharine’s co-workers, sometimes the fear of facing harsh punishment is enough to force us into silence. It’s not enough to simply think that your moral compass points north; as Katharine’s actions demonstrate, it’s what you do when that compass starts to waver that’s important. Katharine Gun exhibited a rare and impressive bravery on the off-hand chance that she could prevent an all-out war.
Backed by a brilliant supporting cast, Hood manages to make Official Secrets as much about the background players without completely detracting focus from Katharine’s plight. Big names like Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans and Conleth Hill shine as the journalist team from The Observer that first broke Katharine’s story, while Ralph Feinnes takes on a more minor, but no less important role as human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson who represented Katharine in her trial against the Crown.
The true standout amongst the support cast, however, was Adam Bakri as Katharine’s immigrant husband, Yasar. With a pure and enthralling level of sensitivity, Bakri provides a window into the other side effects of warfare – displacement of the survivors, often in countries that want you back where you came from, psychological trauma and, in his case, unbridled fear as your new government makes secret moves to deport you back to a warzone in order to silence your wife.
A remarkable and powerful filmmaking effort, Official Secrets tells a story that everyone remembers but doesn’t truly know – that governments fabricated facts to align with their desire for war, that those governments then led thousands of soldiers and civilians to unnecessary death and injury, and that we are still paying for this string of colossal mistakes more than 10 years later.
Official Secrets was screened as part of the 69th Melbourne International Film Festival, is currently playing as part of the 6th British Film Festival presented by MINI and will have a general release in cinemas from November 21.