Official Secrets could easily be paired with The Report, in that it tells the true story of someone who helped reveal state wrongdoings in the wake of 9/11. In The Report, it was torturing prisoners captured by US forces, and in Official Secrets, it’s about the legality of going to war in Iraq in 2003.
Keira Knightly plays Katharine Gun, a GCHQ translator who works on intercepts captured by the security services. One day an NSA memo goes around the entire team essentially telling them to be on the lookout for material that could be used to blackmail other members of the UN Security Council in order that they can be persuaded to vote the “right” way and make the war in Iraq legal.
Recall this around the time of dodgy dossiers and supposed weapons of mass destruction.
Gun is appalled, and talks to a friend of hers who works in the anti-war movement. In due course she leaks a copy of the memo, which eventually finds its way to Martin Bright (Matt Smith), a reporter at The Observer.
But is the memo real? The Observer has taken a pro-war line, being portrayed as believing the stories that they’re being fed by Tony Blair’s camp.
Bright enlists the help of Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) in trying to stand up the story. If the paper publishes the memo and it’s a fake, then it would be catastrophic. The Hitler Diaries – famously published by Stern and The Sunday Times – are referenced.
When The Observer does publish the leak, all hell breaks loose. Inside GCHQ, there’s a witch-hunt underway to find the leaker. Gun finds the pressure intolerable, and seeing her co-workers being investigated for something she’s done means that she ends up handing herself in.
That means she needs to find some lawyers, which she does when she meets Liberty – namely Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) and Shami Chakrabarti (Indira Varma). They then face the reality that a guilty plea might result in a shorter prison sentence, although Emmerson has another plan.
The story is told succinctly, and we can understand the pressure that Gun feels. Knightly is well cast playing a vulnerable woman who just to add to things, is married to an asylum seeker for whom the authorities are able to make life difficult.
I confess I didn’t know the entirety of Gun’s story, hers being just one of a series of things that took place in the run up to the Iraq invasion. But the simplicity of what she did, and what the memo she leaked said, means that it’s able to create a clear narrative, driven on by the twin tracks of what was happening to her, and what was happening at The Observer as journalists there tried to get the story out.
As such, this film is going to be incredibly uncomfortable watching for some who are portrayed in it – including members of the then senior editorial team of The Observer.
The film opens widely this week.