Official Secrets (2019), co-written and directed by Gavin Hood, is adapted from the nonfiction book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion (2008), written by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell. The film depicts actions taken in early 2003 by Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator at GCHQ, a British intelligence agency, to leak a memo regarding an illegal U.S. operation to bug and otherwise spy on the U.N. offices of delegates slated to vote on approval for the invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile it also depicts the actions taken by a crew of journalists at The Observer, including Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) and Martin Bright (Matt Smith), to verify and then publish findings informed by the documents that Gun leaked. Both Hood and Bright were present for the screening of Official Secrets at the Independent Film Festival Boston in late April, which is when this interview was conducted.
DIG: Martin, since breaking this story in 2003, you’ve published numerous follow-up articles for various outlets and have in many ways been keeping the story in the public consciousness. Now one could obviously have a cynical reading of why that is—especially now that it’s resulted in a dramatic film that very much depicts you as being on the right side of history. So what I’ll ask is, given all we know about other breaches of ethics, and war crimes, committed during the Iraq War, if we remove Katharine Gun from this story, if we remove yourself from this story, what about it remains truly historically important?
MB: The reason I wanted to keep it alive was not to get a film made. It was because I felt this was an unresolved part of the history of the Iraq War, a footnote to the Iraq War—this has never been central to any inquiry into the Iraq War. And for me, what is crucial about the story is that it demonstrates that, at the end of January 2003, fate had not yet been decided. We know now that there was a huge desire on the part of George W. Bush to go to war—but it was not yet fixed. So those 24 hours around when this memo was sent out was a period of utter desperation on both the American side and the British side… and Katharine was there, and was the only person at GCHQ who was willing to reveal what was going on. So for me, at least to a certain extent, this is a story which completes the historical record, because without understanding exactly what role that particular operation played, the record will never be complete.
You talk about this being an incomplete or unresolved story, and one reason for that is that Gun remains bound by an “official secrets” law, which is clear even from reading your follow-up articles, which for that reason do not feature new information beyond what was originally published. Gavin, as the co-writer and director of this film, how did you approach telling a “true story” when presumably at least some vital information regarding that story is under lock and key?
GH: Speaking as a screenwriter and someone trying to entertain an audience—let’s start there. The story we tell does not fit easily into conventional screenplay structure. And that was the struggle. In a conventional screenplay, you have an individual in the classic hero’s journey mold … and at the end they emerge victorious, or they are fallen. But you don’t normally pass the baton along the way, the way that we do in this film.
When I was structuring it, I was thinking, Well, is this just Katharine’s story? Do we [jettison] the journalists? Then you go, Wait a minute, the stuff with the journalists is so unbelievable, you can’t not have that in the movie! Well, in that case is it the journalists’ story, is it like All the President’s Men (1976), just them reporting? But hold on, you can’t not have Katharine in the story! And then, following all that, Katharine pretty much hands over her case to this lawyer, Ben Emmerson (played by Ralph Fiennes), Well, you can’t not have him in the story! So you are out of conventional structure.
Then you find in studio meetings that you’re getting a lot of pressure to perhaps, you know, play a little fast and loose with the facts, in order to get to a more compelling structure. There were moments where the suggestion was made that perhaps Martin Bright should come to America, and discover the Office of Special Plans! This was before I came on. And of course Martin said, Well, that never happened…
MB: Or [it was suggested that] I should be a combined character, all three journalists, so I would do everything that all my colleagues did. Which would’ve been really embarrassing.
GH: I have to compress a one-year story into a two-hour film. So it’s always a question of what gets left out. … [And] the concept became: Okay, I’m really telling the story of a mysterious memo. That memo lands on a young woman’s desk, and various things happen. Then that memo lands on a journalist’s desk, and various things happen. And then as a result of that memo, we go to the lawyers. That’s the way we structured it.
So to answer your question, specifically—to what extent are we all hemmed in by the official secrets act?—here’s where it’s at. Katharine was allowed to speak about the specifics of that memo and that case to her lawyers, but nothing outside of it. So the one thing about Katharine is that she will not talk to me or anyone else about anything else she did at GCHQ. I have no idea what else she did.
MB: The official secrets act in the UK is a very blunt instrument. It’s a piece of legislation that can make it very difficult for journalists to do their jobs. What’s perhaps unusual about Katharine compared to other whistleblowers in the intelligence community is that she’s not anti-intelligence, and she’s not really anti-establishment. She remains someone who has a great pride in the work that she did as an intelligence operative. She just believes this one memo crossed the line for her. So in my experience, even to me, she has not talked about anything else.
For instance, I have asked her, as I understand it what was happening, spying on other diplomatic missions within the United Nations, should be illegal under international law—did GCHQ have a department that did this kind of stuff, “Spying on the United Nations” written on the door? And I can remember her beginning to speak—then realizing that she shouldn’t be talking about that.
On that note, the film takes formal steps to downplay what we see of how Katharine’s job actually works. You essentially present her as working a normal day job, with cubicles and all. That’s even reflected on some level in the title, which has been changed from the source book, and now doesn’t include the word “spy”. As a result, when she’s interrogated later in the movie, and that word comes up, it hits—in a manner that’s very different than how it would’ve hit if the title of the movie had been The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War. Why did you play it that way?
GH: I played it that way because one thing which truly interested me about this film was that [Katharine] was not a larger than life character, in the mold of a Snowden or Assange or anyone else like that. She is, essentially, a person at work, doing a job. In my way of seeing it, this relatively ordinary person—who could be someone at an accounting firm, or someone working at Facebook or Enron—sees something within their work that says something is a little rotten in my organization, which then proposes the question, what would you do?
Back to structure for a moment. A number of critics, myself included, found notable similarities between Official Secrets and Spielberg’s recent film The Post (2017). For me what it shares with that film specifically is a certain triangular narrative balance. They each follow three strands of story: first, an extremely process-based depiction of journalism, on a nuts-and-bolts level, down to editorial meetings and copy editing; second, dialogue-based scenes where characters make their political viewpoints explicit, which in this film is a lot of what Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun is doing; and third, suspense-based sequences that depict the actual process of making the leak happen in the first place, in both cases by heisting pieces of paper, and using third parties to distribute them, and so on. Can you tell me about finding the balance that allows these various disparate elements to work in concert with one another?
GH: Well, I hope I’m understanding the question correctly, but if I am, then it really is a question of both structure and style. So—some people might feel I haven’t been thriller-esque enough! There are bumps and frights, she gets the document caught in the machine—you create these genre-like thriller moments…
MB: Like the guys following her on the train.
GH: Like the guys following her on the train! Which did happen, although we can’t verify whether they were or weren’t from GCHQ. These are all thriller, genre elements. And there were some people in the studio world at one point who wanted more and more thriller. We need more chases down alleyways was one comment. Well, she wasn’t chased down alleyways! I’m not going to do that. So how do you find a balance between being in the thriller/spy genre, but not getting too tricksy, and going with ultra-low camera angles, which makes it look like you’re forcing it? My feeling was to shoot this in a way that gets you tight eye lines. Keira looks virtually into camera when I’m tracking around her, and sometimes she does look into camera. Let me get inside this wonderful actress’ head as she struggles, nonverbally, to make decisions. And let me not overly hype it with tricky angles because that feels dishonest. So it is a balance. And I hope we’ve achieved a balance between almost journalistic storytelling and thriller-esque tension.
MB: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve had a string of historical films about, let’s say, the last great days of newspaper journalism, how it isn’t like that anymore. We’re living in a time of great concern about truth and how journalists are going to continue to hold power to account. And it’s very important, I think, that we’ve had a number of recent attempts to represent how this has been done, and could be done.
Conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.