“Official Secrets”: Gavin Hood uses South African life to inform spy drama

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets tells the true story of British whistleblower Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), who found herself facing a possible prison term after she leaked the contents of a scandalous U.S. memo. Ralph Fiennes (left) plays her barrister in the film.

by DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 27, 2019

It’s tempting to think Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood has no love for authority.

His breakthrough 2005 film Tsotsi, which won a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, followed the life of a Johannesburg gang leader (Presley Chweneyagae), and Eye in the Sky examined the murky ethics of drone warfare.

His latest, Official Secrets, tells the real-life story of British spy Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), who leaked a confidential National Security Agency memo about the coming Iraq war to London’s The Observer in 2003.

Nonetheless, Hood spends a great deal of our 17-minute telephone conversation gushing about his adopted home in the States.

“As a law student in South Africa in those days, we studied the American Constitution,” he says. “So, oddly, even though I make films that might be perceived as being sort of anti-establishment, I actually regard them as very pro-establishment. I am very, very, very much a patriot about the founding documents that underlie this democracy because I know what it’s like to come from a place [where] those things get blurred and pushed aside in the name of authoritarianism.

“In the ’80s, when I was in law school, there were riot police on campus every second week. We literally had no right of access to a lawyer if you were detained, and you could be detained indefinitely without a trial if you were charged under emergency regulations.”

It’s not a stretch to imagine that he could identify with Gun, who faced years in prison for violating the Official Secrets Act by leaking a single note. This was an email written by NSA official Frank Koza, who requested British assistance in finding compromising information about delegations from nonpermanent members of the United Nations Security Council. If nonpermanent members like Chile voted for the war, it would have been legal for Great Britain to proceed.

Unlike American whistleblowers Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg or Chelsea Manning, who leaked enormous volumes of secret information, Gun’s information could barely fill a single page. Nonetheless, violating the UK’s Official Secrets Act can send a government employee to prison for several years.

“If it was Enron or Boeing or a Wall Street bank, you’d reward that person,” he says. “Indeed, the American law does reward whistleblowers. Why would that not apply in a government organization? It becomes a story of what would you do if it happened at your place of work.

“She’s not someone who’s anti-the establishment per se. She’s quite happy to serve under her commander, but there’s a point in which command crosses the line, and enough is enough.”

While Gun’s actions may have precedents in the real world and in fiction, Hood says bringing her story to the screen offered intriguing challenges. In adapting Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell’s The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, he and co-screenwriters Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein weren’t dealing with a person who easily fit into standard tropes.

Instead of being a veteran spy, Gun was a low-level analyst and had not reached 30 when she risked her career and her freedom. She also failed to stop the invasion of Iraq, which took place a few days after her arrest. Nonetheless, Hood says that the leak prevented an authorization vote on the floor of the U.N.

“On one hand, we can say ‘How can someone breach the Official Secrets Act?’ but we also applaud as heroes people who stand up to authorities who abuse their power,” Hood explains. “We are so steeped in narrative post-Joseph Campbell, The Hero With 1,000 Faces and Star Wars … A traditional story must be about a hero who is good, who is wronged and faces the antagonist who represents the forces of evil, and by the end of the film, [the] hero must have donned his or her cape and have defeated the forces of evil. There’s nothing wrong with that.

“When I look at this as a writer, it’s just not conforming to conventional narrative structure that audiences have been fed over so many decades. Is this going to work? Sometimes what I like about Katharine’s story is that she isn’t a hero in the sense of being larger than life. She’s absolutely the hero of her own conscience, and, I think, much closer to you and me.”

He’s also quick to point out that while he and Gun both consider the Iraq War to be a mistake, neither has any fond memories of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In the film, Gun’s husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) is a Turkish Kurd, so neither he nor his wife would have approved of a man who persecuted people of his own ethnicity.

“[George W.] Bush and [Tony] Blair’s hubris was that they somehow believed that by dropping bombs they’d be greeted as liberators and that there’d be a flowering democracy,” he says. “We [already] had him boxed in. Saddam was a bad guy. None of us is going to shed a tear for Saddam Hussein. I hope you’ll make sure that ‘Gavin Hood is not in the least bit in favor of a dictatorial regime — having grown up under one.'”

To make the story of an ordinary spy more engaging and authentic, Hood supplemented the material in The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War by interviewing Gun as well as Observer reporters Martin Bright (Matt Smith), Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) and Gun’s attorney Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes).

Hood says talking with Emmerson taught him how her defense team strategy helped convince the Crown to withdraw the charges against her.

“In interviewing Ben Emmerson, who’s not featured much in the book, some interesting details came out,” he says. “I asked how did he know that the documents … from [Attorney General] Goldsmith would reveal that a U.N. resolution would be required to justify the war, and he said, ‘Elizabeth Wilmshurst [a legal adviser for the UK Foreign Office] had resigned, so I called her up and asked her for a cup of tea.’

“Because we’re making a film about people who are very much still alive and because it would be a total disaster for my investors if we made the film and any of those people turn up and say it was rubbish, that would kind of spoil things; [this is] the first experience with me being more like a journalist … having to interview real people rather than having to make up fictional characters.”

That said, Hood explains that even his fictional films like Eye in the Sky and X-Men OriginsWolverine tackle real-world concerns. It’s certainly true to the source material.

For his own movie, Hood recalls that he wanted to make a movie that was more like the Wolverine films that James Mangold directed (The Wolverine, Logan) than the film he ultimately made.

“I’m not sure I succeeded,” he says. “I was not used to such a big machine having come from independent film. But what I thought was fascinating was a story about a man who wants to lash out at the world from PTSD, and yet what he really wants to do is withdraw the claws and stop having to operate in a world of violence.

Gavin Hood – Photo by Getty Images Europe


Arkansas Democrat Gazette MovieStyle on 09/27/2019

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Dan Lybarger is a freelance film critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Pitch, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cineaste and other publications.