In 2008, the BBC broadcast 10 Days to War
, a series of eight short dramas marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. In one episode, A Simple Private Matter
, Juliet Stevenson plays Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the lawyer who resigned as Deputy Legal Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 20 March 2003, three days after Lord Goldsmith issued his final advice to the British Government. This advice reversed her legal opinion (used in Lord Goldsmith's first secret memo 10 days earlier) that the invasion of Iraq would be illegal without a second United Nations Security Council resolution. The reason for Wilmshurst's resignation was not made public until two years later.
, directed and co-written by Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky
) also features Wilmshurst, played here by Tamsin Greig in a riveting low-key performance. It is a small part, but a pivotal one, because the fate of the film's protagonist turns on the question of legality. It is an important scene for another reason. Its un-emphatic tone signals that, though this is a spy drama, it is not an action thriller.
Hood's film is based on the true case of Katharine Gun, a translator employed by the British security services at their GCHQ surveillance outpost in Cheltenham. The film starts in February 2003 with a scene in which Keira Knightley as the about-to-become whistle-blower Gun, is watching an interview with Tony Blair in which he is explaining to David Frost why Britain must go to war with Iraq. Leaning forward confidentially, he explains that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction that could reach Britain in less than 45 minutes. 'Bloody liar', Gun mutters at the television screen. 'Just because you're the Prime Minister doesn't mean you get to make up your own facts.'
Gun, appalled at the prospect of war, is astonished to receive an email from the US National Security Agency (NSA) soliciting the UK's complicity in a covert bugging operation. Translators, including herself, are to listen in for any compromising personal information that could be used to blackmail delegates from six 'swing nations' on the UN Security Council, with the objective of coercing them into endorsing the UN's vital second resolution in support of war against Iraq. She prints off the email, tucks it in her knickers and passes it to a friend in the anti-war movement.
Finding its way to The Observer's
home affairs editor Martin Bright (Matt Smith), he crafts the memo into a front-page scoop. It is speedily condemned as fake, because it uses the English spelling of 'recognise' rather than the American 'recognize', thus weakening the potential scandal. The invasion goes ahead without UN endorsement, and The Observer
, though discovering the source of the mistake in a simple transcription error, does not make this public: A sub-editor had used spell check and the original American spelling of the email became English spelling. But GCHQ knows the email is not
a fake, and an internal investigation results in Gun being taken to court for breaching the Official Secrets Act.
Unlike the case of David Kelly, about whose fate the whole world knows, the prosecution dropped all charges on the first day of Gun's trial. This is probably why few of us remember the case. And this is precisely why the case was dropped. Gun's defence (intelligently conducted by Ralph Fiennes as her sympathetic lawyer) rests on the government handing over full documentation of the shifting legal advice it received on the legality of the war. Gun blew the whistle when Elizabeth Wilmshurst's view prevailed: war would be illegal without a second UN vote. The government preferred to set her free rather than face full exposure of Lord Goldsmith's about-turn after having an audience with Bush at the White House.
All of this is clearly laid out in Gavin Hood's clear-eyed, if cinematically unimaginative, film. Secret meetings in car parks and whispered phone conversations pepper the screen in which a scene of photocopying is high drama, and a pulsating score does its best to inject a sense of paranoia and suspense into office politics.
Co-written with Sara and Gregory Bernstein, its familiar British ensemble cast includes Matthew Goode as war correspondent Peter Beaumont, Rhys Ifans as passionate anti-government critic Ed Vulliamy, Ralph Fiennes as veteran human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson, and Indira Varma as Shami Chakrabarti, former head of Liberty. Observer
editor and Blair-supporter Roger Alton (Conleth Hill) is the film's only cardboard cutout figure, all sweary bluster and faintly irritating. But it is Keira Knightley's focused performance as a young woman out of her depth in the face of a sinister state apparatus bearing down on her and her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish Muslim facing extradition, that anchors the film.
is a timely reminder of how we arrived at the world we are experiencing right now. But nothing could have prepared me for the rage and grief I felt halfway through Official Secret
s, when televised footage of the unforgettable first images of the bombing of Baghdad are flashed up on the cinema screen. Editor Megan Gill splices in news clips from the period, including soundings from key players George W Bush, Tony Blair (both extraordinarily young and fresh-faced looking, and with manifestly clear consciences) and Colin Powell. We can forget that the nation split before the Brexit moment.
Gun's case remains as relevant as ever. Its world of floppy discs and zip files feels in some ways like yesterday but could as well be a lifetime ago. In 2003, the establishment view was broadly in favour of joining the US invasion of Iraq – the very same people who now roundly condemn the war.
This film's standpoint is clear. The Iraq war was an illegal war. In 2003, the Government lied and many at the time believed it was lying, though this was not confirmed until later. For the millions who took to the streets on 15 February 2003 for the Stop the War march, the absence of proof that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction was not the point so much as that the war was unjustifiable, possibly illegal. The widespread change of heart regarding Iraq occurred because of people like Gun who had backbone, and though scared, were not cowed.