Official Secrets (2019)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Run Time
1 hour and 52 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4.5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

John 3:20
Once to every man and nation/Comes the moment to decide,/In the strife of truth with falsehood,/For the good or evil side…

From the hymn based on a James Russell Lowell anti
The government seeks to humiliate Katherine by placing her in a cage-like dock at her trial. (c) IFC Films

Crisis”Director Gavin Hood and writers Sara Bernstein and Gregory Bernstein have crafted a political thriller set in Great Britain, but which is tied in with the USA as well. This true story took place 16 years ago, but I need only write “whistle blower,” and you will see its immediate relevancy. Based on Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, the film is as absorbing as any pulp spy novel, and will at times remind you of All the President’s Men, or the recent film Vice (2016) in which the same war is important.

Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) lives quietly with her  husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish Turk who is seeking British citizenship. Katharine works for British  Intelligence in a cubicle at GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters): fluent in Mandarin, she listens in on phone conversations and reports any that might be of interest to her superiors. One day she is copied a secret email that says that the Americans expect GCHQ to assist the American NSA on a secret project to dig up compromising information on U.N. Security Council members (Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea) for the purpose being able to blackmail them into voting yes on invading Iraq. Katherine is deeply disturbed by this. Earlier, while watching P.M. Tony Blair on TV parrot the Bush Administrations’ claim that Iraq has nuclear materials, ”What we know, is that Saddam has this material,” she angrily said to Blair’s image and then to Yasar, ”You don’t know that. I mean, he just keeps repeating the lie. Just because you’re the Prime Minister, it doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts.”

Troubled that thousands of lives will be disrupted or ended by war, Katherine frets over what to do. Yasar is very much against her going public with her misgivings. Both of them are aware of the harsh penalties specified in the Official Secrets Act against anyone who leaks information. She nonetheless gives a copy of the email to a friend who has contacts with the press.

Two weeks later The Observer publishes reporter Martin Bright’s (Matt Smith) article based on the email. The story is vigorously denied by the Americans, who claim that it is fake (ever hear of “fake news” before?). To bolster their claim the Americans even concoct a scheme that involves pointing out differences in American and British spelling of certain words in the email. This attempt to discredit the story works, and by the time Bright can prove his story, it is too late. The Observer’s editor, who had supported the Government’s decision to join the American invasion, had thus been extremely reluctant to criticize the government from the very first. There is much more to this side of the story, with Bright’s war-correspondent colleague Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) and Washington reporter Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans), the latter with a CIA source, are also involved, one of them even meeting with an official in a parking garage, just like in All the President’s Men—yes, he mentions “Deep Throat” in their conversation.

When her superiors at GCHQ launch a vigorous investigation to find “the traitor,” Katherine at first denies any knowledge of the leak. But seeing the pressure her co-workers are subjected to, she decides she should confess—again Yasar is against her doing so, telling her to let things blow over.

As soon as she tells the investigator, she is placed under arrest and escorted from the office. When a Scotland Yard interrogator says that she works for the Government, she denies this, saying “I work for the British people.” She denies being a traitor, declaring that she leaked the memo in an attempt to save lives.

Katherine is fortunate in securing as her defense lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who decides that they must question the legality of the war. This proves to be crucial, because the one thing the British government does not want to get into in a public court is any hint of illegality. What the prosecutor does when the trial finally comes (a year after Katherine’s indictment) is surprising to all concerned. A subplot involves the Government getting personal by attempting to deport Yasar, who by now staunchly supports his wife, back to Turkey. The night scene at the airport where Yasar is being deported is perhaps made up to intensify the drama, though the dirty tactic of the government is real. (something similar was inserted into Argo, Ben Afleck’s film about the Iranian hostage crisis.)

The filmmakers insert lots of news clips featuring President Bush, Blair, Colin Powell and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, as well as shots of the world-wide anti-war demonstrations. The CNN clips of the attack on Baghdad will bring back memories of what seemed would be a quick and easy victory, and yet which enmeshed the US and its allies in years of violence and the rise of Al Qaeda ad spread of anti-American feelings among Muslims. The grim end notes focus on the hundreds of thousand soldier and civilian casualties.

Katherine Gun was unable to stop a war, but she set a good example for other citizens to follow. When came her “moment to decide in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side,” she chose the side of peace and truth. “I am only sorry that it failed,” she has said. In several places I have read the tribute paid her by Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle blower during the Vietnam War,  “No one else — including myself — has ever done what Katharine Gun did: Tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it. Hers was the most important — and courageous — leak I’ve ever seen, more timely and potentially more effective than the Pentagon Papers.”

For more illumination on this film and the Iraq War see Sam Husseini’s article “Film ‘Official Secrets is the Tip of a Mammoth Iceberg’ in the on-line journal Consortium News.

 This review will be in the October issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store

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