My Verdict | ★★★☆☆
I left the screening of Official Secrets thinking about what American journalist Chris Hedges calls ‘moral courage’. In his book Wages of Rebellion, Hedges describes those with moral courage as ‘solitary individual[s]’ who are ‘disobedient to authority, even at the risk of his or her life, for a higher principle. And with moral courage comes persecution’. Gavin Hood’s thriller is not only a timely reminder of a highly controversial period in recent British political history but also the price of moral courage for those who fight against injustices committed in our name.
The solitary individual here is Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a GCHQ signals analyst who decides to leak a memo from US intelligence agencies trying to influence a crucial UN resolution vote. As Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush make the case for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the public protest against it is rising and Gun finds herself compelled to follow her conscience. When the memo ends up being begrudgingly printed by The Observer, Katharine’s freedom (and those closest to her) are threatened under the law of the very state she has served.
Adapted by Sara and Gregory Bernstein from Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War, Official Secrets is a conventionally stylised and structured political thriller. Late-night car park exchanges, intimidating state thugs, toady civil servants and skeptical investigative journalists can be ticked off the political-thriller trope checklist. Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian’s typical score builds up an atmosphere of portentous conspiracy and desperate leaking.
Official Secrets is unevenly positioned between the (melo)dramatic and the documentary. It sharply orientates itself toward authenticity by using real footage of the people and events leading up to the invasion (Blair’s emphatic appeals on David Frost to the ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign on Baghdad). The considerable amount of exposition and technical jargon are mostly made understandable and key figures are given some needed titles on the screen. Unexpectedly, however, Official Secrets does have some real humour alongside the underlying sense of outrage. A major setback in the credibility of the Observer’s story occurs due to office laziness over the more serious charge of dodgy sources. Almost Scooby-Doo like, the huddled journalists rise out of the cubicle to find out their own office ‘leak’.
What is treated with deserved seriousness is the focus on Gun. Official Secrets concentrates on the courage and the consequences of the leaker herself rather than give too much credit to the other players. Matt Smith’s astute Martin Bright and Conleth Hill’s obsequious editor Roger Alton are viewed as compromised, even grubby, opportunists looking for a ‘good story’. It couldn’t be farther from the depiction of a crusading newsroom in Pakula’s All The President’s Men or Spielberg’s The Post.
In contrast, Gun is the genuine person of conscience. Knightley’s committed, sympathetic performance effectively builds this moral centre. While the odd polemic is dramatically pronounced in her usual RP-enuciation (‘We would be conceding that no-one can ever tell the people when their government is lying!’), Knightley convincingly portrays the erosion of Gun’s professional and personal life under state pressure.
Gunn is conceived as a reluctant crusader who might have enjoyed remonstrating at the television from her sofa but doesn’t fully realise the price until she actually acts. While Hood’s structuring of events, people and his underlining political message lay out the case for the Iraq War’s immorality and illegality, Knightley’s moving performance complicates this message as she fluctuates between selfishness and selflessness. The sense of conviction in Gunn’s moral position is allowed to grow and cement rather than being preconceived.
Where ‘speaking truth to power’ is often presented in cinema as righteous, Official Secrets continually reminds us that in such a course of moral action there will be (or should be) a cost attached. It isn’t only for Gun but also to those who decide to defend her. A later scene between Ralph Fiennes’ human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson and Jeremy Northam’s Attorney General Ken Macdonald demonstrates poignantly how we have to draw the moral lines in our lives. These are uncomfortable but necessary and should not be forgotten, especially in a time when figures like Blair and Bush have received an unwarranted media rehabilitation since the emergence of Trump and Brexit. It is a very relevant scene, one that Ellen Degeneres, for one, should watch and reflect on.
Sixteen years on, whistle blowers, leakers and journalists, such as Snowden, Manning and Assange, continue to be persecuted by their own governments for revealing the truth. Official Secrets reminds us of both the precarity and necessity in these acts of moral courage.