Keira Knightley says she doesn’t think she’d have the courage to follow in the footsteps of the “true hero” whistleblower Katharine Gun, whom she plays in new thriller Official Secrets.
Eye in the Sky director Gavin Hood’s film stars the 34-year-old as Gun, who was a translator working for intelligence organisation GCHQ in 2003.
She leaked a memo regarding apparent US/UK plans to eavesdrop on diplomats in an attempt to engineer a United Nations Security Council vote in favour of military intervention against Saddam Hussein.
The document eventually found its way to the desk of Observer journalist Martin Bright — played in the film by former Doctor Who lead Matt Smith — sparking a tense race to expose the truth. It’s a race which leads to a blockbuster front page story and Katharine facing prosecution for breaching the Official Secrets Act.
“We all like to think that we'd be the ones who would tell the truth and get it out there,” Knightley tells Yahoo Movies UK. “But I think the reality is, horrifically, that maybe I wouldn't. Maybe I would've looked the other way and tried to save myself.”
She adds: “There are very few truth tellers — those people that absolutely know they're putting their life, their career and their freedom on the line, but ultimately believe that what they're doing is so important and so right that they do it anyway.”
“From the very beginning, I was involved with telling my story,” says Gun. “Gavin Hood was very clear that he wanted to get a very accurate portrayal, a very detailed portrayal of the emotional ups and downs of the whole experience.”
Hood spent five days in consultation with Gun and the other key players — Bright describes it as “a very collaborative process” — in order to get the details of the true story right.
The 56-year-old director previously took on the very real moral dilemma surrounding drone warfare with 2015’s Eye in the Sky, but found this film to be a whole different kettle of fish.
He says: “It's the first time I've done a film where I'm writing about people who are very much alive and you have a tremendous responsibility to get it right, not just because you should get it right but also because if you don't they are gonna say so and it's not going to be very good for your marketing campaign.
“These are all people of great integrity and intelligence and, as I say, the joy from me is learning from these folks as I'm working my way through the story.”
The scenes set within the newsroom of the Observer are particularly meticulous, with Bright confirming he was on set for all of the sequences depicting the “raucous, crazy” environment at the paper, including his notoriously sweary boss Roger Alton, portrayed by Game of Thrones alum Conleth Hill.
Hood says his film is geared towards asking the audience to engage with its issues and ask what they would do if they were faced with such a decision.
He says: “I hope that an audience watching this film is both entertained and intrigued and wondering what happens next, and then at the end is also left with something to talk about. There are no easy answers to these questions posed by the film and I don't want to look like I'm trying to tell anyone what to think.”
Bright is of the opinion that Gun should’ve approached the leak differently by sending the document to the paper, rather than passing it on through an anti-war campaigner friend. Gun says she can “see the value” in taking a more direct approach.
She adds: “Potentially if that email had come out earlier, there would have been more time to bring it to the attention of the people who really should've paid attention to it.”
Official Secrets never shies away from its contemporary relevance, exploring the notion of exposing truth in the face of political adversity. One pointed line of dialogue sees Knightley’s Gun state, while watching then prime minister Tony Blair on the news, that “just because you're the Prime Minister doesn't mean you get to make up your own facts”. It’s a line that resonates in the era of “alternative facts” and fake news.
Bright says: “It is a very timely film and it does talk about the importance of truth and the importance for journalists of digging out the reality behind the propaganda. I have to say that I think things would be more difficult in these circumstances now.
“At the time, politicians were prepared to be held to account. Now, politicians make a point of not being held to account. So who knows what would happen if a similar leak happened today?”
Official Secrets will be released in UK cinemas on 18 October.