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A morality tale for the 21st century, Official Secrets tells the true story of British Intelligence whistle-blower Katharine Gun who, during the immediate run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, leaked a top secret NSA memo exposing a joint US-UK illegal spying operation against members of the UN Security Council. The memo proposed blackmailing smaller, undecided member states into voting for war. At great personal and professional risk, journalist Martin Bright published the leaked document in The Observer newspaper in London, and the story made headlines around the world. Members of the Security Council were outraged and any chance of a UN resolution in favour of war collapsed. But within days, Bush declared he no longer needed UN backing and invaded anyway. As Iraq descended into chaos, Katharine was arrested and charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. Martin faced potential charges too. Their legal battles exposed the highest levels of government in both London and Washington ...
The release of Official Secrets (2019) coincides with the current US President telling the world he gladly accepts intelligence dirt on political opponents irrespective of source. With impeccable timing, the film shows how such dirt-gathering can potentially impact the course of history.
Based on real events, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightly) is a surveillance employee in Britain's Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). In early 2003, she sees an email from an American intelligence agency seeking British support to illegally pressure six UN Security Council swing-states for war with Iraq (falsely claiming it possessed weapons of mass destruction). Highly principled and anti-war, Katharine passes on the email to a friend with journalist connections and within weeks it is on the front pages. She confesses her crime, and for the next year, her life is hell as she awaits trial under the Official Secrets Act.
If you have little interest in global politics or major world events, you may get lost in this dialogue-driven moral rights story. It is crafted into several narrative segments: Katharine's relationship to her Muslim immigrant husband; her relations with GCHQ colleagues; the role of The Observer newspaper; and legal arguments by defence and prosecution lawyers. Each is a separate and engaging story that culminates in a shock trial outcome in early 2004.
Official Secrets works at several levels, but it is Keira Knightly who keeps the film together. She exudes an effortless screen presence that holds audience attention despite an uncharacteristically understated performance. This ensures that attention is drawn away from herself to keep the spotlight on the morality of whistleblowing and the duplicity of US and British action in manipulating due process. Archival material on Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Saddam Hussein defines the story's time and place with authenticity. The script is dense with explanation and legal argument but, at the core, it is a story of one individual who believes an illegal war is about to be declared and cannot bear the moral responsibility of doing nothing.
Much of the action takes place in The Observer newsroom as reporters grapple with the enormity of the information leak, the legal consequences of going to press, and the implications of silence. The interplay of commercial, legal, and political imperatives is well drawn by an excellent supporting cast and a filming style evocative of the loneliness that comes from being one voice standing on principle.
There continues to be real-life morality dramas involving high-profile whistle-blowers around the world, and the public is divided on whether they are heroes or villains. This film may help you decide.
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