In April (2019) I had the pleasure of speaking with Gavin Hood, director of Official Secrets, the soon to be released film, and with journalist Martin Bright who is portrayed in the film. The following interview is adapted and edited from that interchange.
Set in 2003, the film focuses on Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), who is employed as a Mandarin translator by the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), a British intelligence agency, during a time when US and British intelligence conspired to influence a UN vote to ratify an invasion of Iraq. Becoming aware of communications to this effect, Gun was forced to make difficult moral choices.
Gavin Hood (GH): It’s great to be here in Boston. Martin said “let’s take a walk by Paul Revere and the historic parts,” so we did that and went, among other things, to the Tea Party Museum on the boat in the Harbor. We had fun.
Martin Bright (MB): You have to remember that in the UK we’re not taught this part of our history.
Charles Munitz, Boston Arts Diary (CM): Of course not!
MB: We British don’t lose many wars!
GH: And this one lost a half a continent.
CM: I loved the film by the way. I’m on my second viewing because there was so much there and I wondered whether I caught all of the links in the the various connections among the people who engineered one sort of move or another. Especially on the second viewing I noticed how subtly and interestingly all of that was done. I thought that one line in which Katharine says to her husband “Well, I just did this as a job” was so crucial because it alleviated the whole raft of questions one would have about somebody working in a security agency and being stunned by the sort of breaching of the public trust which the film depicts. That must have been a very interesting choice on on your part that that particular moral question was left open – in that Katharine was not someone like Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden who more systematically distributed a set of classified documents. That one little line revealed the fact that this was an ordinary person who all of a sudden found something extraordinary.
GH: I think that’s really well put. She’s an ordinary person who found something extraordinary. That’s what drew me to her. Before I met Katharine I wasn’t sure, to be honest, if I would have taken the project on. But, my producer called and asked me if I’d ever heard of Katharine Gun – I said I hadn’t, which was awkward – but he said “neither had I – you should read up.” And there had already been a book (The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion (2008) by Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell), so I read the book. That got me thinking, but still I was very unsure about whether she did or did not do the right thing. I needed to talk to this person – so I said to my producer that before I make any decisions I would like to talk to her myself. So Katharine and I met in London for five days during which time I took extensive notes. One of the things she said to me in response to my question about how she decided to do this job was “I was looking for a job – I needed a job – I saw an advert in, of all newspapers, The Guardian,” which is you know, sort of a liberal newspaper. OK, so the GCSQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is advertising in The Guardian – which is interesting in itself – so she answered the advert, which just said “jobs for translators.” It didn’t say “jobs for spies.” So she went for an interview as a translator and found that it was for GCHQ, and she thought it could be very interesting. But what I think is interesting about the kinds of people that GCHQ needs to recruit for these kinds of jobs – and it’s a dilemma for them – is they actually need people who are both English speaking, fluent, but who are fluent in another language, which by definition means they are deeply understanding of another culture. Katharine grew up in Taiwan, so though she looks English she spent all her life from three years old to 16 in another culture, and by definition when you’ve lived in another culture you have empathy for that culture. So I thought that was interesting that she took a job as a translator first not knowing who she’d be working for when she went to the interview. And then she found out but thought “I need a job. Well, I’ll give this a go…” And then, as it turns out, something happens in your job which seems not to be right, which crosses a line. So for two years she worked happily and, as she says in the film, proudly gathering intelligence that might help prevent a terror attack, or give Britain an advantage in trade talks before all of this happened.
MB: Actually, she’s still quite proud of GCHQ. But, to your original point – I think there is an interesting oscillation in this film between ordinariness and extraordinariness. Katharine is, in one sense, a very private person but someone who, as a result of what she’s done, has put herself in front of a huge audience. She is someone who gets on with what she describes as an ordinary day job which, at the same time, is quite an extraordinary kind of day job. And of course, we all project some sort of ideas of what it is to be in intelligence work or what it is to be a spy…
GH: … without actually having a clue what it’s actually like, because we’ve never been there.
MB: But when we (journalists) received this memo (from her), you have to remember that we didn’t know who she was – at all. So we had all sorts of theories about who she was – “the person who is leaking all this has to be someone senior in MI6 (the British CIA), a politician, or some activist who’s really angry about the war. And then when the news came that it was a…
GH: … 29 year old…
MB: …translator, that completely changed the whole complexion of the story.
CM: It’s got a little feeling of the Karen Silkwood story (made famous in “Silkwood,” the 1983 film starring Meryl Streep).
GH: That’s interesting.
CM: A very ordinary person working in a highly pressured context.
GH: Great movie. Nobody has raised that association yet. That’s a really good analogy. I love it – Meryl Streep, as an ordinary person who finds herself doing something that she would never have predicted she would do.
CM: And it’s a wonderful story, as is this one, about that amazing challenge to moral sensibility that can occur for anybody.
GH: That’s why I liked it. It’s not not a story of Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, all of which are fascinating stories, but somehow those are kind of larger than life. This is a person who could be you or me. We might not be in a spy situation – we might just be in a corporation or an industry. And the question is: would you, if you saw something in your particular office that really crossed the line, would you risk losing your job to speak up for justice, or would you just keep your head down because you have bills to pay? And this young woman risked losing not only her job but her freedom. And I think there’s something quite extraordinary about an ordinary person doing that and I think your Silkwood example is actually pretty much the same. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
CM: And the film also has great subtextual resonance in the US at this time. Merely in the ordinary political context, all of us, right now, are thrown into making some kinds of extraordinary moral choices.
GH: That’s great, and true. You’re saying that merely as citizens in the current political climate we are being called upon to make a choice of how to vote and take other moral stances. I keep looking at situations in corporate and organizational contexts and thinking about what one would do when faced with difficult choices, but actually we’re all faced with that question on a daily basis about where we put our loyalty.
CM: And how do we see the role of ordinary citizens in making these extraordinary moral choices? And do you really have to be in an extraordinary situation to make them?
MB: The flip side of that, re the film, is that Katharine was the only person in GCHQ who received that controversial memo about influencing the UN vote who did anything about it. Because she was quite a junior translator, we surmise that the circulation list on that memo was wide, and that the authorities were prepared to take that risk because they were so desperate to get that UN resolution to give Tony Blair cover because Bush didn’t want to go in (to Iraq) alone…
GH: …and Britain would not have gone in without legal cover…
MB: Even in a situation like that where anyone might, from reading that memo, decide that this was a bad thing for Britain to be asked to do, she was the only one do did anything about it. And, as we know from studying similar situations, almost no one, under such circumstances, ever does anything.
GH: The old status quo bias…
CM: I thought it was a really nice touch in the film to have the Oriental woman who’s a colleague come and say to Katharine “your action has meant a lot to me, and to a lot of us.”
GH: Katharine, in fact, did have such a friend at work, though we do not reveal the actual identity of the friend who stuck by her. When Katharine told me that story I asked if I could put that in the movie, because it is so interesting and revealing that there was such a friend who was willing to be a personal support but not quite willing to go to the next level of lending more outward support and who felt dreadfully guilty about that. Katharine told that person not to feel guilty, but was nonetheless very thankful for her personal expression of appreciation. That episode exhibits something about that moment when one decides how far to go with one’s support – though I don’t mean to criticize that friend, it obviously would have been great for her to step up and say Me Too. But she didn’t do that nor did Katharine specifically encourage her to do so. Indeed, Katharine said she felt horribly guilty for putting so many of her friends in the spotlight and that’s why she felt at a certain point she had to confess.
CM: That was a wonderful critical point in the film when it was clear that here were these other people who were brought in for the second surveillance interviews in response to the leaked memo with the higher-ups and you could just see the tension in Katharine brewing. Keira Knightley did a fabulous job of showing that tension at that point.
GH: She was especially wonderful in that moment. As a director, when you’re shooting and you think you’re going to track around for 10 seconds and keep the actor’s eye-line really tight, you really just want to see the cogs turning, and internally you are saying I hope she can pull this off… and then indeed you see her pull it off wonderfully well – directorially that is a real thrill. You know then that you’ve just captured a little element of true magic.
MB: That’s a key moment.
GH: She’s so great in that moment.
MB: Oddly, it wasn’t that moment when she confesses that got to me in the script when I was reading it, but emotionally it’s what got to me in the film. Even though I’m a character in the film, as a viewer of it I’m identifying with Katharine. And, at that moment, I, as viewer, was thinking, as many might, you know what – I wouldn’t have done that. That’s a crucial moment in the film for us journalists as well, as people are starting to pour cold water on the story. It’s almost terrible to admit, but we were really glad when someone (i.e. Katharine) was charged because it proved the whole story wasn’t a fake.
CM: That came out beautifully in the film – that this was a personal moral choice for Katharine that potently affected relationships with her colleagues, but which had so many significant ramifications for society at large. I wanted to go back to the question about the distribution of that email memo – it seems like such an oddity that this should be broadcast so broadly, even inside a security agency like GCHQ. Didn’t it strike you as strange that the plan for this subversive initiative…
GH: …got spread so wide? Indeed, it smacks of desperation on the part of Bush and Blair to get that UN resolution passed. I think it’s important to remember – we brush over these things in the film so fast – there’s a moment when Martin Bright is telling Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) what happened. He indicates that the British military personnel were refusing to cross the Iraqi border without a clear legal directive from the Attorney General because they were afraid of a war crimes trial. At that moment in the movie we’re trying to get on to the court case because the audience doesn’t want to get bogged down, but originally I had even more such evidence at that place in the film, particularly about Admiral Michael Boyce who voiced these concerns. At around this point in the film people are going Okay, I need to know what happens to Katharine so some of that got cut. The fact is that it was Admiral Boyce, the chief of the entire British military establishment, who was refusing to to cross the border with Kuwait into Iraq without a written declaration from the attorney general that it was legal. Boyce was very angry about the whole business in fact, and was very clear that he was not going to risk any of his men or officers being charged with war crimes. For Blair, getting that UN resolution was terribly important, and he didn’t get it – which was what really a result of what Katharine did – because after her leak of the GCHQ memo there was no UN vote taken. So what she did in fact denied Bush and Blair the cover of that UN resolution and that’s why they immediately jumped in and suddenly and vehemently declared We’re going to war. We’re going in and WMD (weapons of mass destruction) are the reason, and there’s your legal justification.
CM: I thought that was well done in the film – showing how the war started without any resolution to the narrative about the leaked memo.
GH: I do want to say that one of the things you also said, Martin, is how that story – about Katharine Gun – was a big story, and then it simply got crushed by the bigger story of the invasion of Iraq. Now all we want to do is watch the tanks and the bombing and nobody cares, for the next six months, how we got into this war.. It’s only as the war turns into a disaster months and months later that we collectively start saying It’s not so much fun to watch the bombing anymore. Why are we here? Where are the WMDs? And now years later we’re saying: …and remember Katharine Gun?
MB: Right! Who’s that?!
CM: It’s a great service to provide that story because it shows the nuance in all of the objections raised, especially when you were talking about the military guys …
GH: … Admiral Boyce.
CM: Yes, him, but also I was also thinking of Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson (Clive Francis) …
GH: … whom Martin knows personally…
CM: I thought that that was a wonderful conversation because it was clear he was speaking in indirection and nuance but giving his full support to this journalistic line of inquiry.
MB: It is a very interesting conversation with Nick Wilkinson and to some extent with his tennis partner at MI6. It goes back to the question you asked about about a single voice in a big organization, with people standing alone in these situations. So you’ve got Nick Wilkinson who’s very deeply embedded within the British establishment. He’s a former Admiral – a forever Admiral, because that’s how it works in the UK, with very close links to the military and to the intelligence service – and he’s a kind of intermediary with the press to some extent. And what’s he saying in fact? What he’s saying is: Do your job, right??!!
GH: He’s saying it to you?
MB: Yes, he’s saying it to me, a reporter, and as a representative of the state who is feeling great frustration, as though he were indicating that You guys (the press) are just taking the government line. There’s so much more to find out here. Do your jobs. And at the same time, of course, I’m thinking: Well, how about you you guys kind of doing your jobs too? Indeed, we’re all a series of people just scraping away at trying to get to the truth of this story. I think I’ve talked about this before – about the corruption of our institutions – that there were large numbers of people within the Judiciary, within Parliament, within the Intelligence services – and within journalism – who weren’t doing their jobs during this period, and the consequences for those institutions subsequently have been dire.
GH: I need to know – when you say dire, do you mean because people lost faith in these institutions, especially now that we are in the post-factual world in which one could be seen as faking anything?
MB: I think that the war itself was corrosive of those institutions – that having the US-British alliance pushing us so hard to go to go to war put immense pressure on the UK side and on the American side, and on those institutions that are supposed to hold government and power to account.
GH: And upon the individuals working in those institutions who succumbed to the pressure…
MB: And they – we – all failed, to a certain extent, in that process. Now the consequences have been many and various. I think consequences have been very serious for those institutions themselves and for the people working in them, but also for public trust in those institutions. And so a lot of what people say about their governments lying to them comes directly from the recent memory of what happened in the run-up to the Iraq War.
CM: The film did a wonderful job of showing that point but doing it in a nuanced way. So I think you did, through the portrayal of these military people, show how, despite their not coming out and condemning these things directly, they did express their points of view in ways that helped the revelatory process along. I thought also the depiction of the newsroom at The Observer was great.
GH: A real bunch of characters…
CM: That moment when the Rhys Ifans character (Ed Vulliamy), a journalist, says outright we’re not the PR agency for Tony Blair… was wonderful.
GH: That character really does feel that strongly, that’s no exaggeration. One funny thing – we were critiqued by the newsroom, in general, that the editor, Roger Alton (Conleth Hill), doesn’t swear enough in the film.
CM: A last question: to what extent is the film fabricated? It’s so clearly based on fact and factual people but even the most historically based films that are made for dramatic purposes have certain kinds of emphasis changed.
GH: This film structurally doesn’t fit into a conventional film narrative structure: Hero has something going on, is wronged, sets out on a task to right things and triumphs in the end. It just won’t fit easily into that classic simple structure. So, the questions about narrative arose: Should one tell the story of Katharine Gun?. On the other hand: Should one tell the story of Martin Bright? If it’s like All the President’s Men (1976), I can’t leave out that newsroom moment with the spell-check issue, but I can’t not tell Katharine about it. So what I thought was I’m going to follow the way this memo moves through the story. So, one drops a memo on Katharine’s desk and it becomes about Katharine, but then the memo moves to the journalist and it now becomes about the journalist, then the memo moves back, then the memo lands up indirectly on the lawyer’s desk, and Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) enters the film. And for a long time the emphasis was on what happened factually, and I did want to be as truthful about the material facts as I possibly could. I use that word as a former lawyer because we need the material facts. A central material fact is that the memo was sent by Frank Koza. It did arrive on Katharine Gun’s desk. She was indeed a Mandarin translator and she was was married to a Muslim Kurdish man who was deported. Every incident that you see in the film happened. But the challenge was to take a story that takes place over a year and compress it into two hours. So what do you do? So here’s an example of where the film differs from reality and where I allowed myself permission to depart from reality: on the deportation question – Katharine’s husband was deported at that moment in story time, but, in fact, he went away for three days and she didn’t know where he was. When I first wrote the script I had ten pages on that event. And then I said to Katharine the audience wants to know what’s going to happen. I’m going to almost montage this event. It takes place almost in 24 hours. So I will take the critique of having condensed the deportation scene for dramatic purposes, though the deportation itself, and Katharine’s seeing her MP (Member of Parliament) about it and him helping her are all true. I didn’t do the scenes in prison where he was kept without phone access to Katharine. If anything, what happened in real life in that episode was worse than what is shown in the film. Where I also compress time – and I think I’ll be forgiven – is when I say Six months later and the gag order has been lifted, and the GCHQ arrives and says you can’t even talk to a lawyer. In fact, it took her lawyers, in particular James Welch who I feel I’ve somewhat shortchanged because he really worked on that, six months with numerous Court appearances to get permission to actually represent Katharine in the case alongside Ben Emmerson. The material fact is that the gag order was imposed and the gag order was lifted, but we’ve left out what happened the middle. And similarly in the newsroom, Martin’s team went to various editorial meetings before they decided to publish the story about the memo, but we create one scene that compresses the essence of the argument.
MB: I was hugely relieved when Gavin started working on the film that this was the tack he was taking – this had to be about reality. Because you know, when you sign away your life rights, a film could go anywhere really. Yeah. So the fact that Gavin was very keen to stick to the facts was hugely reassuring to me. What was then fascinating was to work closely together on seeing how that might work in practice dramatically, and that’s the kind of thing I had to learn a lot about. So, for instance, it had been suggested that perhaps the three journalists working on this should be condensed into two characters or even one character portrayed as one superhero journalist, and that would have been…
GH: … a bad idea…
MB: … and deeply embarrassing to me!
GH: You don’t do that compressing of characters in All The President’s Men and you don’t do that in Spotlight (2015). Yet those films do a similar thing to this one in compressing time, as does Silkwood.
CM: I think it’s also very helpful to have put the titles of the characters in – there are so many of them.
GH: … which is why there’s also a temptation to amalgamate them. I just didn’t want to do that. First of all it would have been a huge insult to Martin, Ed (Ed Vulliamy, portrayed by Rhys Ifans), and Peter (Peter Beaumont, portrayed by Matthew Goode) to compress them into one person. And secondly they’re just such interesting people. Martin, no offense, but you are quite interesting! So it was great to talk to all of them and to interview them all and and then to run the script back by them. The real challenge then was how to compress? The guiding light was that every material fact had to be correct…
MB: … including the spell-check event …
GH: ..and that young lady (who executes the spell-check) has seen the film and just said, yes, I know, that was the worst day of my life.
CM: It’s probably the most dramatic spell-check moment in recent history.
GH: You can’t make that up. Yeah, I thought this is going to be one of the best scenes in the movie. I’m sorry it happened to Martin – it’s going to be funny – and I know it wasn’t funny for you, Martin, but it’s gonna be funny in a tragic kind of way.
MB: That was her first week on the job.
GH: I didn’t realize that.
– Charles Munitz (aka BADMan)