Movie Review: Official Secrets (2019)

TL;DR – This is the story of British translator Katharine Gun who worked for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and blew the whistle on her own government and the United States for attempting to blackmail UN diplomats of other nations to vote with the UK and US on the invasion of Iraq.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Anyone who has followed the events leading up to the 9/11 World Trade Centre terrorist attacks and the political aftermath will be aware of British whistle blower Katharine Gun, who in 2003 leaked a top secret memo in relation to an illegal operation between British and American intelligence services to spy on UN diplomats. The UN Security Council were looking to vote on a resolution supporting the invasion of Iraq. This operation sought to spy on those nations that could swing the vote to the US and UK’s favour by obtaining information they could use to blackmail those diplomats.

US President George W. Bush declared a war on terror after the 9/11 attacks. Bush together with UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sought to convince the rest of the world that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Other countries opposed the invasion and held the position that there was insufficient evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This in turn led to worldwide protests against the Iraq War.

Official Secrets is a no-frills drama of the conflict within the UK between anti-war advocates and government agencies waging war on terror. Katharine Gun (Kiera Knightley) is driven to act when she sees news reports regarding the US and UK government pushing to invade Iraq based on ‘intelligence’ she knows is not backed by solid evidence. It also looks into the machinations of the British newspaper, The Observer, and journalist, Martin Bright (Matt Smith) as he receives the top secret memo through a middle person who knows Katharine and seeks to authenticate the information.

In the film, the key scene is when Katharine sits down with Scotland Yard detective, TinTin (Peter Guiness) and is interviewed:

“What were you employed to do?” asks TinTin.
“Well, I can’t be specific,” responds Katharine.
“Be general then.”
“I translated signals intelligence and I report anything I thought might be of interest to my clients.”
“Your clients?”
“The Foreign Office. The Ministry of Defence.”
“So, you work for the British government.”
“No, not really.”
“Governments change. I work for the British people. I gather intelligence so that the government can protect the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.”

Detective TinTin then drills down on Katharine that her work involves being a spy and as a spy it is her job to eavesdrop on private conversations regardless of who they may be (including UN diplomats).

Katharine’s response is calm and measured as she says, “I don’t object to being asked to collect information that could help prevent a terror attack. What I object to is being asked to gather intelligence to help fix a vote at the UN and deceive the world into going to war.”

What follows is the British Government charges her for breaching the Official Secrets Act and the pressure exerted on her to plead guilty in order to receive a more lenient sentence. Katharine hires lawyer, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) to represent her and after going through the charges and the likely prosecutor’s case, they do their own research and discover that the Attorney-General Peter Goldsmith had written an advisory document stating that it would not be lawful to use force (and instigate a war on Iraq) without a new Security Council resolution. Further this document existed at the same time the GCHQ were emailed a memo to spy on UN diplomats. Goldsmith later reversed his position after going to Washington stating that the UN’s resolution of the 1991 Gulf War could be reactivated to legitimise a new war with Iraq (which the film depicts as a ‘fringe view’ at best).

Ben Emmerson then proceeds to try and put the legality of the Iraq War on trial and requests documents from the government. In a remarkable final scene, the prosecution drops all charges on Katherine as the documents in question would have shown that the government had deceived the British people into entering a war on Iraq.

Words are then shown on screen indicating in 2010, Goldsmith’s advice to Tony Blair was made public indicating it would be illegal to go to war without a Security Council resolution and this coincided with when Katharine leaked the memo. Statistics are then shown of the number of Iraqis killed and wounded during the four years of war, along with the number of US and UK soldiers that died. Real life footage at the end shows Katharine being mobbed by the press and being asked whether she would do it again and she indicated she would.

Overall, Official Secrets depicts another example of why people distrust and are disillusioned by politicians and governments. Sadly, the film does not attempt to show anything of the other side (other than news footage of Bush, Blair and Colin Powell urging the UN to vote for the invasion into Iraq). The 9/11 terrorist attacks created an atmosphere of global fear that still echoes on today and generated a need for governments to be perceived to be acting against terror threats. A time when emotions were so high that the need to act (even if those acts involved violation of human rights and privacy) was unbearable. It was an impossible time for political leaders, but arguably a time when political leaders needed to rise above the emotion and be the voice of calm.

If you want to learn what happened leading up to 9/11 and the events after, I recommend watching Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, a docuseries that shows much of humanity’s failings and the destruction caused by war and hate.

The cast of Official Secrets are all spot on especially Kiera Knightley and Adam Bakri who plays Katharine’s husband, Yasar Gun. Director Gavin Hood delivers a tight film that is worth the watch even if it doesn’t delve into the complexities of a time when the political climate was at a tumultuous high. In truth, if Hood decided to lump all that in as well you would have a running time over three hours. Better off watching the docuseries I mentioned above.

7.5 out of 10

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