Jackie Bergson reviews Official Secrets (2019). Director: Gavin Hood. Writers: Gavin Hood, Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein
Her belief that GCHQ have duties to uncover truths which serve to protect UK citizens and inhabitants drives the film’s narrative. In parallel, journalists working for a London-based broadsheet newspaper determine to uncover and publish their findings about whether UK and USA governments are plotting to win votes in support of an invasion of Iraq. Martin Bright (Matt Smith), Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) thus pursue the ultimate news story.
At the centre of potentially explosive revelations, about UK and USA government heads and the National Security Agency planning for war against Iraq, is a classified memo to which Katharine and her colleague Andy Dumfries (Jack Farthing) are privy. Circulated to GCHQ on 3rd February 2003 by a mysterious NSA chief of staff named Frank Koza, it spells out a command to investigate UN Security Officials, as Andy comments, ‘…to dig up shit on UNSC security delegates’ in such as Chile, Bulgaria, Angola and Cameroon.
Horrified that NSA motives are ‘specific to achieving US goals’,Katharine acts on her best instincts, having already noted news footage of NSA-backed US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, revealing that he “[is] gonna argue for war” against Iraq. Firstly discussing details of the memo with an anti-war activist friend, Jasmine (MyAnna Buring), she decides to print and mail a copy to the newspaper. Upon reading it, Bright decides to follow up and pursue the story, despite his editor’s opposition, which reflects the fact that the newspaper represents government arguments that not proceeding into war will leave the UK vulnerable to attack by Iraq.
On 5 March 2003, when Katharine confesses to her supervisor (Monica Dolan) that she leaked the email, she is arrested on the premises for breaching the Official Secrets Act. During a later interrogation by a Scotland Yard detective (Peter Guiness) she argues that ‘…governments change, I work for the British people… I object to [help] fix a vote at the UN and deceive the world into going to war’.
Significant characters consistently assert that journalists should be compelled through their work to discover and publish true facts, and not act as PR agents for Tony Blair or any government. Barrister Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) points out to his colleagues ‘… since 1989 [after Clive Ponting was acquitted in relation to the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war] Thatcher amended the Official Secrets Act [to define] public interest [as] whatever the government says it is.’
Heightened emotions and growing tensions are movingly conveyed through events which impact on Katharine’s personal life. She and Yasar, a Turkish Kurd and Muslim, argue about whether she should have leaked the memo, therefore raising suspicion against them. She tells him: ‘It is my fault and I’m sorry… But I watched Blair with his smug smile and his sterile speeches that tell us nothing of what it must feel like to be a child in Iraq right now. I know I’m not sorry that I tried to stop him… I’m only sorry that I failed.’
When Yasar is unexpectedly arrested and an attempt is made to deport him back to the Middle East, tension escalates. This peaks when Emmerson informs Katharine that CPS have decided to charge her. Subsequently, he confronts prosecution lawyer Ken McDonald (Jeremy Northam), who vows to enslist his ‘best prosecuter to bring [Katherine] down’. At this point, Emmerson affirms his decision to personally represent her at court. Meanwhile, historian and security consultant Rear-Admiral Nick Wilkinson (Clive Francis) states: ‘I have… always believed that censorship when called for should be based on security issues alone, not on whether a news report might embarrass a government.’ Lord Goldsmith’s involvment as a government advisor at the time is also cleverly woven into the film’s dialogue. Concise, scintillating, with a fascinating range of relevant news and interview footage, blended with superb acting by a brilliant cast, Official Secrets is one of the best in the political thriller film genre.
Jackie Bergson has worked in the voluntary sector and commercial business development in technology and creative sectors.