A young woman sits in a gray office — boxed in by her cubicle desk — as Fox News announces that Donald Trump has just fired FBI director James Comey, ostensibly for his investigation into how Russian interference in the 2016 election likely worked in the 45th president’s favor. Twenty-five days later, the same woman arrives back at her house in Augusta, Georgia to find two FBI agents with a search warrant for her property. She doesn’t look surprised. Within 80 minutes, this ex-Air Force member and NSA translator will have received the harshest ever sentence for the unauthorized release of government information to the media.
The woman — blond bun, denim shorts, a fresh and unassuming demeanor — is Reality Winner (a laughably ironic name, all things considered). Tina Satter’s fascinating directorial debut takes her startling indiscretion and spins it into something of a horror movie about the repercussions of Doing The Right Thing in the face of the United States’ surveillance system: a David and Goliath story where the stronger power slings stones squarely back in the underdog’s face. Not only is “Reality” inventively mounted and extraordinarily tense, but across 85 taut minutes, it proves something we already knew deep down: that Sydney Sweeney is the real deal.
Adapted from her own off-Broadway play “Is This A Room,” the movie — in an ingenious touch also deployed in the play — takes its dialogue directly from a 107-minute audio transcript recorded on June 3, 2017, in which agents Wallace Taylor (Marchánt Davis) and Justin Garrick (Josh Hamilton) interrogated Winner for suspected mishandling of classified information. Inching towards its grand reveal through surreally awkward conversation, “Reality” is gripping and deceptively layered, delineating both the FBI’s queasily ingenious interrogation tactics and Sweeney’s extraordinary range.
At the core of the film’s strange and propulsive appeal is Winner herself, who is both an ordinary American and an extraordinary enigma. She’s patriotic, sporty, teaches yoga, fosters dogs, has military ties and a crucifix on her wall; she’s also fluent in Farsi, Dari and Pashto, has three guns (including a pink AR-15 style rifle), and a Holy Qur’an decorated with pink Post-Its. She is friendly, compliant, and all-American, which only makes her tale more compellingly bizarre. It’s not the girlbossification of espionage, exactly: when she says that she “wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything,” we believe her.
We follow Winner on what is, essentially, both a chamber piece and a single-room thriller: three characters, increasing tension, mounting desperation. As the FBI agents attempt to diffuse Winner’s nerves through polite conversation and by acting calm — if “acting calm” means behaving as if you have just been told that a meteor is about the hit the earth, but you aren’t allowed to tell anyone — we are, in almost real-time, made privy to how Winner was encouraged to confess her crime. The crime being that she, out of a sense of duty to the American people who were being lied to, printed out an intelligence report explaining that Russian hackers accessed voter registration rolls in the United States with an email phishing operation, tucked the paper into her pantyhose, and mailed it to non-profit news organization The Intercept.
After gaining recognition as a flighty, flirty teen in “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus” and starring in smart erotic thriller “The Voyeurs,” Sweeney is more than ready to step into the limelight as a lead. But before the upcoming Marvel tentpole “Madame Web,” she has cleverly made an indie that celebrates her extraordinary talents and wide-eyed likeability. As evidenced in “Reality” and elsewhere, the actress is just so good at acting like she’s on the verge of a freakout — she’s never, ever been happier, thank you very much — and here her subtly reddening cheeks, caving into ragged panic, only grows more and more compelling as Satter swoops her magnifying class of a camera into boxier and boxier close-ups.
The first-time screen director makes proceedings feel both genuinely scary and absurdly quotidian, with sudden, scary jolts of noise and jarring editing; she also deploys an intriguing method of cinematizing the redacted aspects of the transcript through frightening quasi-jumpcuts. It shows us an interrogation, in and of itself an exchange primed for cinematic dramatization, but here with the Hollywood sheen scrubbed off. Because the script is taken nearly world-for-word from the real incident, the resulting conversations are repetitive in a strangely lifelike, intriguing manner. By weaving in and re-creating real-life audio and photographs, Satter work feels almost documentarian.
It’s just one small story in an ongoing deluge of Trump-era corruption, yet Reality Winner is proof alone that even the most dedicated and patriotic of Americans were sick to the back teeth with the hallucinogenic blare of endless Fox News twaddle. Considering her increasing helplessness and anger at the government’s cover-ups and her insider’s view on where the truth truly lay, it’s easy to see how she finally snapped, undoing years of careful work to maintain top-secret security clearance.
And while this may be the most brutally harsh example of the old adage “snitches get stitches” (Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in prison), Satter carefully exposes the mounting tension and mania behind the whole debacle with a fresh point of view: not a mere gimmick, but a unique, pint-sized take on the saturated canon of rifling-through-the-cabinet whistleblower thrillers.
“Reality” premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.