Official Secrets (2019)

Directed by Gavin Hood

The true story of British intelligence whistleblower Katharine Gun who—prior to the 2003 Iraq invasion—leaked a top-secret NSA memo exposing a joint US-UK illegal spying operation against members of the UN Security Council. The memo proposed blackmailing member states into voting for war.

Whilst Official Secrets poses as provocatively daring and the characters are framed as being morally certain and brave, this film made in 2019 recounting events of 2003 is paradoxically blinded by its 20-20 vision of hindsight, and it doesn't have the interesting element of challenging the accepted view. Rather, it recounts the now entirely-orthodox view of the leadup to the Iraq war, with little historical or political insight which might suggest why people were in favour—or at least uncertain—of the potential conflict.

There is no real moral complication on display: you are either "anti-war" (did anyone intelligent really use that phrase in a serious context? It seems like a backport of 'remainer'-style labelling?) or you are venally "pro-war" in a kind of neo-Putinesque caricature. What is perhaps even more annoying is that it seems to imply that GCHQ has actually been corrupted from its original, noble origins by the tawdry United States of America, and it is heavily implied that Keira Knightley's character would be fine with spying on citizens on behalf of the state, if only if they were for the 'right' reasons. In fact, shhe says so at least twice throughout the film but her high-minded reasons for doing so are not interrogated.

As implied above, this is hardly a masterful le Carrè portrayal of the security services. Nobody is taking a stand for other reasons such as arrogance, old age, fear, grandstanding, institutional power, a postcolonial sense of wounded ego, nepotism, vanity, anti-Islamic sentiment and so on. Official Secrets additionally needles me in that it feels the need to acknowledge that the political Left was essentially right on all points about the Iraq war, but the film's use of a crude 'mad leftie journalist' type has the effect of inviting the viewer to conclude that, although the Left was indeed consistently right about the short, medium and long-term impact of the War, it was only right due to a heavy dose paranoia combined with the good ol' stopped clock.

There is a story to be told here, and that is perhaps, quite depressingly, that the leaking of this memo actually made absolutely no difference to going to war in the early 2000s. And this insignificance is inadvertently reproduced on the level of watching Official Secrets itself: it doesn't make much of an impact.