. ‘Official Secrets’: Can one woman stop a war? Should she have to? | Ceasefire Magazine

Film | ‘Official Secrets’: Can one woman stop a war? Should she have to?

By focusing on personalities at the cost of structural issues, 'Official Secrets' ignores too much of the ideological and structural paradigms behind the Iraq War, writes Georgie Carr.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, November 20, 2019 16:36 - 0 Comments

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Can one woman stop a war? Official Secrets follows the real-life story of Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), a GCHQ intelligence operative who blew the whistle on an NSA directive to spy on U.N. Security Council members in an attempt to blackmail them into voting for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When Gun leaks the NSA memo to the Observer newspaper, her story is published by journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith) but Gun’s breach of the Official Secrets Act endangers her freedom and that of her Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri). Cutting between the Cheltenham countryside, the thrum of Fleet Street and the down-at-heel offices of Gun’s Liberty solicitors, Official Secrets pieces together a personal tale of the white liberal fight to stop the Iraq War.

Official Secrets is an early 2000s period piece — bad clothes, floppy disks, and Tony Blair on every TV breakfast show. In the film’s early scenes, we witness the life of the young GCHQ operative; following her commute, the mundanity of her translation work and office conversations. In many ways, GCHQ conforms to type as the spy centre of our imaginations; a high-security, windowless complex filled with fast-typing bright young things. But a quaint Britishness is inscribed into the visual and dialogic tropes of each scene. These chunky-knit clad Cheltenham spies eat cinnamon buns and speak in clipped RP about their work ‘for Queen and Country’ — a romanticised vision of the intelligence services more reminiscent of Bletchley Park than the sinister spying practices of The Bourne Identity.

It is easy to imagine an office culture of folksy everyday nationalism at GCHQ, but the issue with the film is one of politics, not realism. In the aesthetic logic of the film, these quaint touches hint at an institutional traditionalism and naivety. British buns serve as a shorthand for British values and signal the film’s overall reluctance to explore in detail the deep ethical questions opened-up by the Iraq War. Dramatically, this parochial vision of mass surveillance works as a useful tonal contrast to draw a line between Gun, who is principled, and the American State, which is not. But it also infers a deeper ideological narrative; one in which a GCHQ brimming with naive integrity and British grit is compromised by their knowing NSA counterparts. So compromised in fact, the logic of the film infers, that Gun must break ranks to expose the mendacious American attempts to take the UK to war.

Given a different slant, this presentation of deep state illegality and stretchy British morality could function as a satirical critique of the British tendency to efface moral questions with a knee-jerk recourse to national identity. On one level, Official Secrets could be construed as a damning criticism of a culture which still has not found effective ways to hold anyone to account for the Iraq War.  Scenes which show small cabals of white men discussing the war, journalists cosying up to spooks, and a newspaper editor who publishes Gun’s leaked memo because it’s a ‘fucking good story’, could suggest a critical and systemic failure of action and accountability.

And, indeed, the film makes clear that it is only through a combination of luck and bravery that Gun’s story makes the headlines at all. But while the inherent issues of media bias, the ethics of mass surveillance and the imperial ideologies of The War on Terror are alluded to, the film’s formal failure to explore these elements — to narrativise or visually link these issues together as mutually reinforcing factors — means that the structure of Gun’s narrative, from realisation of wrongdoing, through to an eventual resolution (of sorts) in court, means that structural critique is subordinated to the telling of an individual story.

Whistleblowers are symptoms of a system in crisis. But there is a difference between celebrating a person who risks all to reveal the truth and the valorisation of such a safety-valve per se. The film’s firm focus on Gun, Bright and their lawyers — and a narrative point of view which shows the action through their eyes — means that we lose a sense of how these individuals fit into the system as a whole. In a film about a woman’s struggle against injustice we never engage with the forces she is fighting against; this remains a shadow world, constantly receding away from analysis.

With the political history of 2003 carved up into neat, manageable slices of exposition, we are aware of the film’s benefit of  hindsight but, pressed by the need to make this a tense film about one woman’s experience, we are pushed, as viewers, to accept developments in the present tense. This is the plot drive of the thriller. What will happen to Gun? Will she escape jail? This form of storytelling is not so much the ‘personal as political’, but rather a personalisation of politics to what is often a reductive simplicity. The full force of the CIA is therefore reduced, in one scene, to a couple of toughs who stare menacingly at Gun on a train. Similarly, the might of the military-industrial complex and the bombing of Iraq are depicted in postmodern, subjectivising terms — on a TV set.

Throughout the film the mess of the Iraq War is kept at arm’s length so to better explore Gun’s story. For clarity’s sake morality is conceived of in terms of figureheads — the truth-telling of Gun is set against the mendacity of Bush and Blair. This is fine, as far as it goes, but sixteen years on, can we not go further? At root, the film’s focus on personalities at the cost of structural issues ignores so much of what is unresolved and unexplored about the ideological and structural paradigms of the conflict. Official Secrets’ view of History — of heroes vs. villains — serves only to recapitulate a liberal way of presenting historical events and actors, one that dodges engagement with the wider issues at stake. As Gun herself declares, she had ‘failed’ in her bid to stop the Iraq War. But while the film explores whether one woman could stop a war, we should stop to consider the validity of this question and ask, instead, why is it she should have had to?

Official Secrets was released in the UK on 18 October.

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Georgie Carr

Georgie Carr is a writer based in London. Their Twitter is @georgie_cat_

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