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Reality

"I knew it was secret. But I also knew I had pledged my service to the American people." — Reality Winner

Reality Winner's name is almost too good to be true, considering the facts of the case. The former United States Air Force member, a linguist contractor with the NSA, fluent in Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, with top security clearance, and, of course, eventual whistleblower, was arrested on June 3, 2017, for printing out classified information about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and sending it to the news outlet The Intercept. Despite support from the likes of Julian Assange, Reality did not "win" in her fight against the federal government. Denied bail multiple times, Winner was sentenced to five years in prison, the longest sentence ever given for leaking classified documents. (She was released early in 2021.) 

What was startling about Reality Winner was her youth (just 25 years old), and her blonde-blue-eyed fresh-faced innocent appearance. She was a Cross Fit devotee. Her Instagram was a mashup of documenting her healthy meals and posting weight-lifting videos. It was hard to square the image with the reality. The two FBI agents who questioned her had recording devices attached to their wrists. They recorded the whole interrogation.

In 2019, Tina Satter turned the interrogation transcript into an acclaimed play, Is This A Room, which started with a run at the Vineyard Theatre in New York before moving to Broadway in 2021. The script is made up entirely of the transcript, word for word. "Reality," Satter's film adaptation of the stage play, is her directorial debut, and it's such an impressive and unnerving piece of work. 

Sydney Sweeney plays Reality, and Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis play the two FBI agents charged with figuring out what Reality did when she did it. "If" she did it isn't a question. Winner was confronted by the agents outside her home in Augusta, Georgia, as she got out of her car after doing a grocery run. The entire questioning process occurred first on the lawn outside her house and then inside in an unfurnished back area, which—as Winner apologizes for on the tape—is dirty, and not really a room at all. She consents to the questioning. She does not ask for a lawyer.

The transcript is fascinating since it starts so casually, and Winner shows little to no confusion about why FBI agents are confronting her on her front lawn. Wouldn't an innocent person demand to know what they think she has done? Reality is compliant. She doesn't seem surprised they are there, although she claims she has no idea why they want to talk to her. The only thing rattling her is the thought of her pets. If the agents could please close the front door as they search her house so the cat doesn't escape, that would be great! If she is arrested, could someone please call so-and-so to come and pick up her dog? (If you are a pet owner, this will make perfect sense.)

One could call "Reality" bare bones, which would be accurate. Most of it occurs in one room, with three people talking. There are some interesting camera angles as the questioning gets more intense, but Satter's approach generally allows the language to take center stage. There are a couple of "flashbacks," but they're brief: Reality is shown sitting at her desk at work, Fox News playing on all the television screens. No attempt is made to "open up" the story. 

At first, the FBI agents display benign good-cop smiles. They just want to clear up some confusion; they have a couple of questions! They are dressed casually in khakis, Izods. They make small talk. The small talk is truly small: the weather, her groceries, her pets; she mentions lifting weights and getting ready for a competition. Some of this even feels like casual banter. Reality's concern for the well-being of her pets is not brushed off. The agents try to assuage her concerns, although they make alarmed moves when she tries to walk toward her dog or the front door. She notices these things, their control of her movements, but remains cooperative. She is never hostile.

There are times when Satter cuts to a blank screen, with the words being said by Reality and the agents unfurling out in transcript form, underlying the word-for-word nature of the script: false starts, awkward bumbling phrases, and almost dull language. Nobody is eloquent. It's fascinating to listen to because this is how people talk, and it's as close as possible to how it all went down.

The redactions in the transcript are personalized and visualized in almost supernatural flashes, glitches in the Matrix, adding to the eerie feeling of a gigantic monolithic government crouched in the corner of that bare dirty room in a small house in Georgia. Everything seems real, but the tension pushes it into an almost surreal and experimental space. (Satter runs with this in a hallucinatory section where the all-male FBI team laughs at Reality's expense.)

Sweeney, known from "Euphoria" and "The White Lotus," might seem like a counter-intuitive casting choice, but Satter knows what she's doing, and so does Sweeney. Sweeney plays Reality simply and unfussily. She doesn't "play" her innocence; she doesn't indicate Reality's inner knowledge. There are no outbursts or impassioned political speeches. She doesn't fall apart. When the reveal comes, as of course it does, it feels organic as opposed to dramatized. Reality did what she did for a reason; she doesn't feel bad about it, knows she will be punished, and is ready to take her punishment. Played in a room with brutal fluorescent lighting, and no clever tricks or soundtrack or ambiance to hide behind, Sweeney gives a very impressive performance, perfectly modulated and crescendoed.

"I wasn't trying to be a Snowden or anything," Reality tells the agents.

Considering everything that's come to light since 2017, Reality Winner's sentence is a reminder of the importance of whistleblowers and the dangers they face. "Reality" is a brutal film, with a short run-time and a story arc so strong it obliterates the memory of self-important complex films, weighted down with a "message," straining for relevance. Satter's film doesn't need to push. "Reality" wears its relevance on its fluorescent-lit short sleeves.

On HBO Monday, May 29th.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Reality movie poster

Reality (2023)

83 minutes

Cast

Sydney Sweeney as Reality Winner

Josh Hamilton as Special Agent Garrick

Marchánt Davis as Special Agent Taylor

Benny Elledge as Joe

Allan Anthony Smith as FBI Agent

John Way as FBI Agent

Director

Writer (based on the play by)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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