Gavin Hood’s “Official Secrets,” now on DVD and digitally, continues the director’s series of feature films critiquing 21st Century American and British war policy. “Rendition” (2007) focuses on CIA torture practices in the real-life case of Khalid al-Masri. “Eye in the Sky” (2015) explores some ethics of our system of drone warfare. Now, with “Official Secrets” (2019), he chronicles the story of a woman who leaked a top-secret document revealing that the US would blackmail UN voters to get them to support what became our invasion of Iraq in 2003. I found this dramatic movie by accident at a local theater; it is a shame we are not celebrating it.
It is January 2003. Responding to the attacks of 9/11, the US and Britain are deep in the Global War on Terror, obliterating whatever remains of Afghanistan. That nation is in rubble after its own civil war, which was preceded by our fight against the Soviets. Seated at a desk, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) translates Mandarin communications for a British intelligence firm. In other words, she is a modern spy, not in a black overcoat clenching a revolver in a dark winter night next to a window listening in on meetings between drunk foreign monarchs, but is instead sitting in a quiet cubicle in a quiet office, staring at text on a glowing computer screen while figuring out what flavor bagel or donut to purchase tomorrow from the café at which her Kurdish Iraqi refugee husband works. As the US struggles to push the case for war on Iraq through the United Nations, she stumbles upon a correspondence. One “Frank Koza,” from the NSA, seeks help in wiretapping the diplomats of various countries to intimidate or extort them into supporting the expansion of the War on Terror into Iraq.
Already skeptical about American aggression toward Iraq, Gun receives this memo and decides she has to do something. Pacing in her racing mind, she makes a copy, makes a call, makes a visit, makes a request, hands it off. Each step, Knightley’s performance carries the film, wrestling with her potential choices. While Spielberg’s “The Post” and Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” focus on the journalists, “Official Secrets” keeps us in the mind of the informant the entire time.
There is no joy in such work of heroism: it is so solitary at first that you wonder if you have lost your mind. There is that moment in the climax of “Avengers: Endgame” when a worn, dirty, wounded Captain America stands up alone to fight Thanos’ full arsenal of fighters, weapons, and spaceships. The rest of the Avengers have been knocked down. Then, Captain America gets the call from Sam Wilson (Falcon), as all the other Avengers – who have now come back to life – join him. I remember watching that scene, thinking “That doesn’t happen.” Meaning, when you stand up for justice, you almost always stand alone; the cavalry does not arrive. When the time comes to stand – even as they post inspirational messages of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Mandela, Bishop Tutu, and the other great figures on social media – people do not join you. They run.
Alone, you have to remind yourself that you are still rational. Knightley’s Gun is full of doubt, second-guessing every step, wishing she could move back in time, wishing time could reveal her future, yet knowing she would make the same choices in each alternate universe. There is only one choice: to swim against the tide, otherwise everyone sinks.
Now, it is common to assert that the War on Iraq was a bad choice, yet it seems we have forgotten – and this movie reminds us – that it was an illegal war.
Through a chain of anonymous connections, Gun manages to get the Koza letter into the hands of a journalist, Martin Bright (Matt Smith). Bright himself -- in the decade since the events of the Koza letter -- rightly or wrongly has been someone notorious in Muslim consciousnesses sounding like another stooge for imperialism for playing fast and loose with Islamic texts and Muslims contexts, asserting that the default Islam is something not friendly, but wild. So, it is all the more interesting that the person who delivers the note to him is Yvonne Ridley (Hattie Morahan), known in Muslim circles as an anti-war journalist who converted to Islam while under Taliban imprisonment.
Every hero has their adversary that seeks to stop them from fulfilling their heroic destiny. The obstacle to all these efforts by Gun, Bright, and Emmerson, is not only the American and British war machine, not only the national zeal for conquest (despite demonstrations and vigils composed of millions), but a government-trump-card (pun intended): the Official Secrets Acts of 1911 and 1989. Nearly a century old, it protected the State’s machinations from whistle blowers. Under Margaret Thatcher in 1989, it was amended to protect the state leak made in the public interest. Meaning, even if Gun is correct, she is legally doomed. The film starts with her in court, about to present her plea. The rest is a flashback, including government attempts to semi-randomly deport her Kurdish Iraqi Muslim husband.
To be fair, such laws are necessary. Some whistle blowers, like Gun, are acting according to a moral compass. Others, however, are anarchists hiding behind calls for governmental transparency. Others are foreign agents pretending to be patriots. Some seek to be messiahs or martyrs while pretending they are public servants. It seems that in such a profession, Gun had to know that such a moment would someday come. Even as a non-agent, I assume all embassies are already wiretapped by other nations, including the Turkey wiretaps of the Saudi Consulate, in which Jamal Khashoggi was (literally) butchered.
Further, the British government engenders the prosecution. They do not attack the newspaper. They do not attack the lawyer. They attack the solitary young do-gooder woman. It is literally #metoo in a nutshell: the system preserves itself by trying to crush the woman who dares expose its fraud. That case leads to a short courtroom drama with – if you did not know the story, as I did not – a surprising, yet not surprising conclusion, revealing so much by revealing very little.
One of the themes of modern Western Imperialism is that we enact our civility through the rule of law. Our Bill of Rights specifically protect those who are driven by conscience against the tyrannies of the majority. Thus, we imagine ourselves as a society of technology and order, protected by social systems – including the Constitution and the Judiciary – and ethical behavior. In contrast, we imagine the rest of the world as something of a jungle of people driven by whims and power. When Whistleblowers come forth, their presence stings not only because they are exposing a truth we do not want to hear, but because they are uncovering a fact that our edifice of couth is anything but. Meaning, the rule of law is something to cherish for the security it offers, yet it is something easily exploited and legally justified. The same happens in the backlash against #BlackLivesMatter, #metoo, and every movement targeted by COINTELPRO, the PATRIOT Act, and whatever is in place now: the movements pull the rug to show all the unmentionables we hide underneath, and power brokers convince society to hate them as unpatriotic anarchists, while those same power brokers cash in.
In the same way, Katharine Gun is now forgotten, as is the illegality of the war that inflamed this global mess. So, God bless the whistleblowers, the journalists, and the barristers who keep our society clean and safe.