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All the Write Moves: 'Official Secrets'

September 3, 2019
4 min read time

In 2003, Katharine Gun, a translator working for British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), encountered an alarming memo sent from the United States intelligence community. The memo asked British spies to blackmail members of the United Nations Security Council into supporting U.S. President George W. Bush’s push for war in Iraq, even though the supposed principal justification for military action—Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction—was far from verified.

Incensed by the immoral content of the memo, Katharine knowingly violated England’s Official Secrets Act by printing a copy of the document and slipping it to a third party who, in turn, passed the memo along to a sympathetic journalist. A month later, after the memo was printed in the London Observer, Katharine confessed to the leak and spent a night in jail before enduring a year-long ordeal during which the English government considered whether to formally charge her with a crime that carried a significant prison sentence.

Official Secrets, a new UK/US co-production starring Keira Knightley as Katharine, dramatizes these events while also providing context that speaks to issues of duplicity, manipulation, politics and race. Based on the book “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War” by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, and adapted for the screen by Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, and Gavin Hood (who also directed), Official Secrets offers a crisp demonstration of how to tell a whistleblower story—and how, more generally speaking, to transform any sprawling real-life event into a taut cinematic narrative.

Teased to Meet You

Opening a movie with the tease of a scene that won’t conclude until the end of the movie is such a standard screenwriting maneuver that it’s easy to take the technique for granted. Nonetheless, Official Secrets provides yet another example of why this maneuver is standard. When employed properly, it works incredibly well to establish narrative tension from the first frames of a movie.

The first scene of Official Secrets features Katharine in court for a presentation of the charge against her—violating the Official Secrets Act. When Katharine is asked how she wishes to plead, the movie cuts to black and presents a “One Year Earlier” card, then proceeds into the story proper. Among other things, this storytelling choice establishes that Official Secrets is about more than just Katharine Gun, the individual. It is about the larger topic of governments hiding the truth from the public. As the movie progresses, we learn that the truly impactful legal proceeding is not the case against Katharine, but rather the case that her lawyers bring against the government for the very idea of keeping “official secrets.” Representative governments are supposed to work for the people, not the other way around, and that means transparency is essential.

Another noteworthy aspect of this particular opening scene is its ruthless efficiency. Excepting a few visual flourishes to provide atmosphere, nothing happens in the scene except for the reading of Katharine’s charges. Throughout Official Secrets, the Bernsteins and Hood whittle scenes down to the bone, allowing them to cram a year’s worth of traumatic events into less than two hours of screen time. Given the sprawl epidemic affecting so many big movies lately, leave it to a small picture to provide a reminder of why brevity matters.

Takeaway: Done right, opening a picture by teasing the ending generates immediate tension.

The Mystery Man

Another useful technique employed in Official Secrets is the hunt for a mystery man. Arguably the most famous examples of this technique in cinema history are Harry Lime, the character played by Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949), and Keyser Söze, the much-discussed villain of The Usual Suspects (1995). In the former instance, characters talk about Harry for the better part of an hour before he appears onscreen, giving tremendous weight to his handful of scenes. In the latter instance, viewers literally spend the entire film trying to solve the enigma of Söze’s identity. This technique allows screenwriters to transform the watching of a drama or thriller into the playing of a game.

In Official Secrets, a character named Frank Koza is known to be the author, or at least the sender, of the memo that Katharine leaks—so in order to prove the authenticity of the memo, journalists must confirm not only that Frank exists, but also that he works, as the memo states, for the National Security Agency of the United States. This is easier said than done.

The Bernsteins and Hood dangle the Frank mystery for easily 30 minutes of screen time, which serves two purposes. Firstly, as noted above, it makes the viewing process participatory. Secondly, this game gives shape and velocity to 30 minutes of screen time in which multiple disparate storylines are serviced. What could have been diffused and meandering, instead becomes focused and propulsive. It’s a neat trick because it’s executed so smoothly.

Takeaway: Talking about an unseen character intrigues viewers.

Whose Truth Is It, Anyway?

By this point, you may find yourself asking why you need to see a dramatization of a relatively obscure British controversy from 16 years ago, especially since the Iraq War ended in 2011. The answer is that just as Official Secrets isn’t only about Katharine Gun, it isn’t only about the Iraq War. In fact, Official Secrets isn’t even only about secrets—it is about lies. On the most fundamental level, this film explores what happens when a government sells a fabrication to the public in order to achieve a political goal. As a character in the film says about the UK’s then-PM, Tony Blair, “Just because you’re the prime minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts.”

Where have we heard that sort of language recently?

Governments lying to the public did not begin in the Donald Trump era. Unfortunately, the practice will not end anytime soon, either. That is why vigilance is required, and in order to be vigilant, the public must be informed. In the tradition of All the President’s Men (1976), movies like Official Secrets help remind us that everything emanating from the government—any government—is political. For that reason, consequential public statements, and even some that don’t seem consequential at first, demand scrutiny.

In Official Secrets, the Bernsteins and Hood illustrate the human cost of challenging powerful entities. Not only does Katharine pay a serious price for her act of conscience, losing her job and spending a year terrified she’s going to end up in jail, but her husband almost pays an even higher cost. In real life and in the movie, Katharine’s husband, Yasar, is a Turkish native, so at one point during Katharine’s ordeal, UK officials tried to have him deported without a legitimate reason. They wanted him gone, so they invented convenient facts.

Similarly, when the US wanted a war—and when the UK, in the person of Tony Blair, wanted to support the US—both governments conspired to invent convenient facts. But for the bravery of people like Katharine Gun, the public might never have learned the truth about the many lies surrounding the Iraq War. Something to consider in today’s climate, given that President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani said the following last year to a reporter: “Truth isn’t truth.”

Left unchecked, that sort of insidious rhetoric leads to events like those depicted in Official Secrets.

Takeaway: Stories from the recent past often have powerful relevance to current events.

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