Caitlin Quinlan


Reality – first-look review

Sydney Sweeney plays NSA whistleblower Reality Winner in Tina Satter's adaptation of her own play, with effective results.

When (the unbelievably named) Reality Winner printed out a classified intelligence report revealing Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election from her National Security Agency work computer and mailed it to the newsroom of The Intercept, she “wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything,” she said. An American linguist who served in the Air Force before taking up a translating job with an NSA contractor, all Winner really wanted was for her employer to stop broadcasting Fox News in the office all day. She wanted right wing politicians and commentators to stop lying to the American public. She merely wanted people to have access to the same truths she did.

Tina Satter adapts her own play ‘Is This A Room’ for her feature film debut Reality, a chamber drama that, like its theatrical counterpart, takes the entirety of its dialogue verbatim from the transcripts of Winner’s 2017 FBI interrogation at her home in Augusta, Georgia. It’s a neat device that highlights both the intensity and the farce of the investigation against her, and refutes the very kind of narrative fabrication that Winner found so troubling. Any pauses, coughs, or interruptions are all included in the script, further grounding the film in a space of mundane realism. Satter toys with this, leaning into the awkwardness and discomfort of the exchange and obscuring exact interpretations of character and narrative.

Sydney Sweeney stars as Winner alongside Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis as the FBI agents who, over a fraught 83 minutes, engage in a game of evasion in Winner’s house, neither side telling the other what they already know. There is an ambiguity to the character of Winner who is constructed through specific details – her bumper stickers, her yellow low top Converse sans laces, her pink semi-automatic rifle – but is performed as often erratic and twitchy, strangely distant except when it comes to the safety of her pets.

Perhaps that’s how anyone would act if federal agents came knocking, but Sweeney’s depiction also serves as a way to build uncertainty around the character and then, ultimately, to avoid defining her in the way that the American media would in the days after the security breach. Her supposed act of espionage brought her the longest sentence ever imposed for a crime of this sort and a torrent of media abuse that focused heavily on her actions and not the valuable content of the document she shared.

Satter is adept at building tension but also opts for clumsier, more gimmicky formal choices that derail some of the film’s efficacy. A repeated image of sound waves to interrupt the interrogations in Winner’s home is an unnecessary reminder of the broader audio conceit that has already been established, and a visual censoring effect that cuts Winner from the frame any time she says something that had been redacted from the transcript feels a little excessive. The film’s strengths lie in the way it uses a government’s own document to expose its failings; not only are the agents often bumbling in their approach and misogynistic, but the question remains as to why the NSA made it so easy for employees to create physical copies of top secret information.

Were it not for the transcripts, Reality would be a more straightforward and less interesting addition to an already oversaturated true crime thriller genre. Satter’s handling of the material and Sweeney’s performance, however, bring this into a more compelling and intriguing space where questions of narrative truth, perception, and the punishment for honesty can be examined.

Published 20 Feb 2023

Tags: Sydney Sweeney Tina Satter

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