The true story of British whistleblower Katharine Gun is public. The new movie dramatizing that story, with Keira Knightley in the starring role is called a thriller. And that it is.
How can a known event be made into a suspenseful thriller? In part this is possible because the story is a complex one that few know the details of, and in part because most people don’t know anything about anything. There’s too much information in the world, and most of it is useless or worse. The story of a whistleblower who took great risks to expose the greatest possible crimes by people holding the most power in the world is not the bit of information that has been most repeated over the past 16 years since it happened. In fact, it’s hardly been mentioned at all in corporate media.
I recommend not reading anything about Katharine Gun until after you see Official Secrets. And what I write about the movie here will avoid revealing much at all. But feel free to go watch the movie first and then come back to this.
The movie has no fights, no shootings, no car chases, no monsters, no nudity; and the closest thing it has to demonized villains you love to hate are actual politicians in actual television clips that the characters in the movie watch on their TVs. And yet, the movie is thrilling. It is gripping.
The film’s director Gavin Hood also directed a god-awful piece of propaganda called Eye in the Sky. He claimed to intend it to raise important moral questions, while in fact it purported to justify the most immoral actions on the basis of a fantastic scenario that has never existed in the real world and never will. But that interest in moral questions has now borne fruit. Official Secrets is a dramatic confrontation of moral choices, and an important model because the protagonist makes a wise and courageous choice each time.
The official “trailer” for Official Secrets reveals that the general context is U.S. and U.K. lies about reasons to attack Iraq in 2003. Katharine Gun leaks evidence of wrongdoing in an attempt to prevent a war that she expects to be disastrous. Her colleagues don’t act. Her superiors don’t act. A whistleblower is a rarity. But others do help, without whom the leak would have accomplished nothing. Peace activists help with the leak. Journalists work to confirm the story. Government officials help to confirm it, and to allow it to be published. A newspaper that openly and explicitly supports launching the war, values the news scoop as a reason to consider publishing the story. Even a lawyer who since then has done more for justifying drone murders than any movie, takes a stand for peace.
Gun continues to worry about preventing a war, but also worries about her colleagues who come under suspicion for the leak. Should she admit her guilt, clear her colleagues, and verify the story? What will best confirm the story for the public? What will best promote future whistleblowing? Does the fate of her colleagues even weigh into a matter that threatens many thousands or millions of lives? Does the fate of her marriage or of her husband, who could be put at risk? How does she draw the distinction that all whistleblowers draw between something so evil that it crosses a line and all the dubious work she has done for years without protest? The film thrusts us into all of these questions and many more.
If Gun is caught, or if she turns herself in, should she plan to plead guilty and obtain the lightest penalty? Or should she plead not-guilty and seek, through a trial, the exposure of government documents that would further expose the criminality of the war — at the risk of a lengthy prison sentence? What will achieve the best outcome in the long run? If the war happens anyway, but shamefully and clearly illegally without global support or a UN vote, will that be a failure? Can courage inspire others to blow the whistle, even if the goal is not achieved? What if the courage is quickly forgotten? What if it’s made known potentially to vastly more than ever knew about it, through a movie that’s widely viewed years later?