For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.—George Eliot, Middlemarch
On Jan. 31, 2003, Katherine Gun’s life changed.
Gun, a translator, working for the British intelligence agency Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), received an email from Frank Koza. An email requesting assistance to spy on various United Nations offices so swing votes could be obtained. Votes the United States and Great Britain needed to go to war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
Gun, in a moment of moral clarity, printed off the email and made sure it found its way to a reporter. Martin Bright was the recipient and his paper, The Guardian, ran the email above the fold—albeit with some damaging corrections.
The rest is history, but not without a twist. War was not averted, and only a select few came to Gun’s defense. The name Daniel Ellsberg still conjures the image of moral fortitude, while Gun’s name has slipped between the pages of history.
Official Secrets—from director Gavin Hood and based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War by Thomas and Marcia Mitchell—brings Gun’s story to the screen with an all-star cast and relentless forward propulsion. It’s a movie that opens with a sharp intake of breath and proceeds to hold it for two hours until Gun (Keira Knightly) finally and jaggedly lets it out.
Knightly plays Gun in a state of perpetual tension. To be found out would jeopardize the well-being of her and her husband—a Turkish Muslim immigrant. To not be found out would jeopardize her co-workers and friends.
On the other side of the email exchange is Guardian reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who is just as righteous as Gun but exudes smugness where Gun bleeds terror. Director Hood employs a beautiful bit of crosscutting the day Bright’s story and Gun’s email is printed. Bright enters the Guardian offices to a standing ovation. Gun finds the paper at the local gas station. Bright is congratulated and told every major news outlet wants to speak with him. Gun retches in the toilet after she shows her husband the paper.
But Gun is young and principled and stands by her actions. Representation comes when barrister Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), equally principled, agrees to defend her. His defense isn’t so much a defense of Gun’s actions but an accusation that the British government acted illegally when it invaded Iraq.
This constant shift between players gives Official Secrets more heft than most “based on true events” movies. Hood keeps Gun at the center of the piece but allows the story to move omnipotently from character to character, picking them up when needed and casting them off once their role is filled. To root the story in the real, Hood introduces bit players with on-screen text and sprinkles archival footage of President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Prime Minister Tony Blair to fill in the gaps.
It does the trick, and Official Secrets manages to engage without relying on blockbuster bravado.
Official Secrets (2019)
Directed by Gavin Hood
Written by Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein, Gavin Hood
Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell
Produced by Ged Doherty, Elizabeth Fowler, Melissa Shiyu Zuo
Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Ralph Fiennes
IFC Films, Rated R, Running time 112 minutes, Premiered Jan. 28, 2019.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 27, No. 4, “With moral authority.”
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