In 2017, 25-year-old NSA contractor and Air Force veteran Reality Winner leaked a single document to The Intercept about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Since the outlet did not follow appropriate measures for protecting its source, the FBI easily tracked down Winner at her cramped home in Augusta, Georgia, later charging her under the Espionage Act. Winner accepted a plea deal with a five-year prison sentence, an outcome usually reserved for more severe offenses. Sonia Kennebeck’s infuriating new documentary, “United States vs. Reality Winner,” explains why she deserved better.
Unlike the explosive Edward Snowden saga of “Citizenfour,” Kennebeck doesn’t attempt to present its subject as a monumental truth-teller, nor does it bring new information to the table, or even fully assess the revelations of Winner’s leak. As a result, it lacks some of the intrigue that this type of investigative documentary storytelling usually bakes into the material. Like Kennebeck’s previous effort, “Enemies of the State,” the movie adopts the icy tone of a true-crime thriller, but “United States vs. Reality Winner” is less expose than repudiation of a system that lacks the humanity to address the subtleties of her case.
With a hodgepodge of testimonies from her family and a sturdy timeline of the events at hand, “United States vs. Reality Winner” consolidates the anger over her fate by the people who understand it best. These include her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, a tireless advocate for her daughter’s release, and her older sister Brittany, with whom Reality exchanged cheeky text messages about her beliefs that ended up as bizarre courtroom evidence of treasonous intent.
Compared to Snowden, Winner’s leak was a modest transgression with no discernible long-term damage, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the audio of the tense interrogation that took place at her home. In 2019, playwright Tina Satter used the interview as a backdrop for “Is This a Room;” here, Kennebeck unleashes the disturbing (and previously unheard) recording as the fascinating backbone of the film’s drama. She blends soft-focus reenactments with snippets of audio as a pair of FBI agents seem to offer softball questions that led her into a confession, even though they never read her Miranda rights. “I don’t think you’re a big bad master spy,” one of the FBI agents consoles her, but that’s exactly how she was treated in the months to come.
Winner is just the eighth whistleblower charged under the Espionage Act in the 100 years since its creation, and the movie makes room for a few others. Snowden (goateed and sporting chest hair that suggests he’s entered the heavy-metal mad scientist stage of his career) provides recurring commentary, recalling “a sense of gratitude” for Winner’s decisions.
When the accused surfaces in a media interview from prison and expresses her regret, it’s a credible statement: Winner, who friends recall as an affable volunteer and animal lover, had no calculated strategy and probably would have preferred to address her anger toward the system in a safer fashion if only that avenue had presented itself. It didn’t, Winner went to jail, and “United States vs. Reality Winner” leaves no question about who’s to blame.
The movie’s biggest target is The Intercept, and fellow whistleblower John Kiriakou explains how his own arrest and two-year prison sentence stemmed from the same writers’ failure to protect a confidential source. The Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed offers her contrition for Winner’s arrest in the movie, much as she did in a public statement at the time, but the damage has been done.
Winner is scheduled for release later this year and this movie doesn’t make an especially powerful argument for absolving her so much as it issues a cautionary tale. In calls to her mother heard throughout, Winner sounds frustrated and perhaps even resigned to her fate, but it’s a text to her sister that resonates above all. When Brittany asks if she hates America, Reality admits that she does — at least in a broad, philosophical, anti-capitalist fashion. Its admission as courtroom evidence suggests millions of Americans could be charged for having the same passing thought.
Kennebeck’s interviews with Winner don’t shed light on how prison may have impacted her ideological convictions or activist intent. “United States vs. Reality Winner” ends with a former Bush Administration staffer acknowledging that Winner’s leak may have helped the U.S. government reinforce the security of the 2020 presidential election. The movie’s SXSW premiere coincided with reports that Russian president Vladmir Putin again infiltrated U.S. elections last fall, this time with less effective results. Whether Winner embraces that legacy or moves past it, her saga will soon require a new chapter.
“United States vs. Reality Winner” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
An earlier version of this article attributed an article related to the arrest of John Kiriakou to The Intercept. Kiriakou says in the documentary that he spoke to one of the authors of The Intercept’s article on Reality Winner, but the writer was a freelance journalist and the conversation did not result in a published article.