“I would do it again”.
These words, spoken by whistleblower Katharine Gun after the British Government decides not to further pursue her trial for violating the Official Secrets Act, perfectly sums up the depth and resiliency of her character in this week’s Reel Movie Mondays film, “Official Secrets”.
At 27, Katharine (portrayed by Keira Knightley) literally risked everything from her job, freedom, family, and privacy to expose efforts by the US and UK governments to influence a UN vote on going to war with Iraq. With the whole world watching how current backstage government dealings play out also due to whistleblower report, “Official Secrets” is a timely, must-watch movie that shines light on the abuse of power, the manipulation and influence of media, and the courageousness of daring to do something at great personal cost simply because it’s the right thing to do.
“Official Secrets” covers the year in Gun’s life between 2003 and 2004 when working as a translator for a British Intelligence agency, receives a memo regarding gathering intelligence on UN Council members to swing their vote for the upcoming Iraq war resolution. After leaking the memo and having it published in the British press, Gun comes forward as the whistleblower and charged by the government for exposing classified information. Very much the stereotypical things
we think of relating to spy stories, made all the more harrowing by the fact her story is real. What makes “Official Secrets” different, entertaining and worth discussing is how it focuses on the impact Katharine produces and the subsequent impact she endures as a result of following her conscience and coming forward when no one else did. While the middle of the movie does showcase the
efforts of the Observer newspaper and its reporters to publish the story, the impetus behind that is because of Katharine’s actions to start the investigation. This is made clear right before Katharine goes into the trial and talks to Martin Bright (Matt Smith), the reporter who broke the story for the first time. Bright tells her “Thank you.
It’s important what you did. It mattered.”
Acting on something that mattered, where she exposed herself amid the fear of not knowing what would happen to her next, is real, true courage. This vulnerability is what makes the audience connect and empathize with her, where we wish we had that same strength and conviction but are fearful to act upon it for whatever reason. This too, comes out in the film, as after she admits to her superiors that she leaked the memo one of her co-workers visits to say how much they
admire her for doing what they couldn’t - yet still doesn’t go through the door of the café, still leaving Katharine isolated from her normal supports. And even though in life at home, work, or school we are told to “If you see something, say something”, the fear of nothing being done or the risk of retaliation is very real for many people. I’m sure we can all think of a time when we thought it better to put our heads down and let something blow over in an act of self-preservation instead of speaking out; which is what makes Katharine’s story all the more extraordinary. The willingness to suffer personal and professional retribution, which by definition means she has nothing to gain by doing so, is something we rarely see. The film also touches on this point, as at the end Gun’s lawyer asks the crown prosecutor why they let her suffer publicly for so long. The response to which is a rather pointed statement implying that her being held out as an example would intimidate other from coming forward. This manufacture of consent can be seen in real world examples too, such as the 2003 Colin Powell address to the UN shown in the movie but even moreso in today’s media landscape where partisanship or repeating a government’s talking points without question appears to be that entity’s sole reason for existence. This film provides a good starting point to discuss those topics.
“Official Secrets” is important because we have all since been exposed to the fact that no weapons of mass destruction, which was the rationale for going to war, were discovered. Yet the reasons for how that came to be and the purpose behind those intelligence reports are still shrouded in mystery even though the majority of the audience seeing this film can vividly remember the circumstances
surrounding it. Knowing that Ms. Gun actually followed her conscience is an inspiring and humbling story to experience; showing us that in the end the truth matters, that it has to matter, for any kind of trust and integrity to exist. Even Daniel Ellsberg, whose similar story of being the whistleblower behind the release of the Pentagon Papers relating to the Vietnam War was told in the movie “The Post”, praised Gun by saying her action was “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen. No one else – including myself – has ever done what Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it.” The relevance of “Official
Secrets” coming out during a time where it parallels current causes such as the MeToo movement or terms such as “Alternative Facts” and “Fake News” being used to spin narratives makes it gripping entertainment that resonates and a movie absolutely worth watching.