Reality

M, 83 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The name of the young security contractor at the centre of this tense, meticulously plotted drama comes as a surprise, likely to catch filmgoers unawares. And when an FBI agent questioning her suddenly addresses her by name, we may wonder if we missed it earlier. Did Agent Garrick (Josh Hamilton) just call her Reality? Or was he demanding some kind of reality check?

Although Reality must be named, it feels like a spoiler alert is required upfront because her name is used so sparingly, perhaps even withheld, for much of the time.

As cars arrive in front of her house, disgorging nine or ten FBI agents, mostly burly men, Reality Winner gives no hint that she has anything to hide. As portrayed by Sydney Sweeney, with her blonde hair pulled back, and her big, liquid eyes, Reality looks innocent and incapable of any serious crime. Though an element of what she herself calls ‘resting bitch face’ suggests more may lie beneath.

To add to the impression of vulnerability, she is wearing a pair of teeny, cut-down denim shorts, white shirt, and bright yellow sneakers. But the look belies the firearms that she owns, a semi-automatic rifle and a Glock 9 that she keeps under the bed. Because she is a licensed owner, Agent Taylor (Marchant Davis) jokes that it sounds like his place.

As the questions persist, Reality begins to show some distress, but she is worried for her pets, a white Persian feline escape-artist and a growly rescue dog, that need to be confined and restrained while the FBI swarm around her small brick bungalow. As the camera pauses on a few of the details of her unremarkable life: a table setting, a photo on the fridge and utensils left in the sink to be washed.

This individual standing up to the state cuts a very tiny figure

In 2017, 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, a linguist fluent in languages of Iran and Afghanistan, was working as a contractor with the US National Security Agency. An Air Force veteran seeking new deployment, she was arrested and charged with posting classified material to the news organization, The Intercept. She received a gaol term of five years, that she will have completed by the end of next year.

A transcript of the audio recording made during the FBI interrogation and house search undertaken the day that Reality was apprehended were sourced by the filmmaker Tina Satter for this spare and unsettling drama. A note in the early scenes of the film that informs us the film’s dialogue is based verbatim on this publicly available transcript. Throughout the film there are reminders of this source material, like shots of the redacted transcript itself and images of the audio signal. It is a mix that works very well, for this compelling movie.

At its core, Reality is about competing world views, and implacably opposed realities. A contest we are seeing quite a lot of in the public space these days.

Satter first developed the transcript for a play called Is This A Room, an off-Broadway production, that she also directed. James Paul Dallas collaborated with her on the screenplay.

When Satter discovered the transcript online, she was sure that its unfinished sentences, non-sequitors and interruptions, would be perfect as stage drama. The fractured sentences also work terrifically well in this film, delivered along with the creative musical composition from Nathan Micay.

The minimalist detail within the frame makes for maximum suspense as we watch a young woman who lives alone, surrounded by FBI agents and questioned for nearly two hours. Sweeney (The White Lotus, The Voyeurs) is impressive here, the camera studying her face in close-up as she tries to evade mounting evidence. She was apparently not informed of her right to remain silent.

It is, in its way, a thrilling movie. Reconstructing the interrogation and detainment of a whistleblower who knew she was misusing secret information, but said she was acting in the interests of the American people, that took place at a time when US social divisions had never seemed greater. The leaked intelligence related to the interference by Russia in the 2016 American election.

The inauguration of President Trump had taken place in January of 2017. Reality was apprehended a few weeks after he had fired, James Comey, Director of the FBI.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 July 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes