In the widely covered story of the U.S. intelligence operative harshly sentenced in 2018 for leaking a confidential report on Russian election interference to The Intercept, the accidental (in)appropriateness of the operative’s name was always an eyecatching detail. Could one of recent reality’s most highly public losers actually be called Reality Winner? Playwright Tina Satter’s enormously compelling film-directing debut adds another layer of cosmic irony to that nominative determinism. In using the title “Reality,” and being scripted verbatim from exchanges recorded by the FBI during Winner’s 2017 surprise interrogation, Satter not only vividly revisits the story, she also makes us question the very relationship between a narrative film and the truth it claims to expose. Reality can be stranger than fiction, but “Reality” fuses the two to become stranger, and more riveting, still.
One major, electrifying connection between the facts of the case and their dramatization is provided by a revelatory Sydney Sweeney, playing Winner so convincingly that it’s hard to remember her as the sardonic, pampered teen in “The White Lotus,’ or the nice-girl-turned-nasty in “Euphoria.” From the moment Winner, an ex-USAF Airman fluent in Farsi, Pashto and Dari and working as a translator for an NSA contractor, arrives back to her small house in Augusta, Ga., to discover the FBI waiting for her, Sweeney’s every flicker of emotion, micro-reaction, evasion and retraction, is utterly believable.
She’s matched in form by Josh Hamilton as Agent Garrick and Marchánt Davis as Agent Taylor, the two men in charge of her questioning. A lot of their conversation is banal: While leading their suspect toward a confession, they chat amiably about Winner’s rescue dog, who is penned up in the backyard, occasionally barking. They joke about her overweight cat and are impressed by her crossfit regimen and fondness for firearms. And yet the tension never lags, it only ratchets up as Winner, who projects actual innocence and incomprehension right until she caves and admits that the leak came from her, gradually realizes the sheer magnitude of the trouble she is in.
The drama has already been proven to work, in the form of Satter’s stage play based on the same text. What is less expected, however, is just how well “Reality” lives in the cinematic form. And it’s not because of any picturesque locations — small wonder Satter’s play was titled “Is This a Room?” when the disused kitchen add-on where it mostly takes place was described by Winner herself as “creepy” and looks more like a CIA blacksite. Instead, it becomes cinematic in the fluidity and precision of Paul Yee’s excellent closed-space cinematography, and in the pacing of Jennifer Vecchiarello and Ron Dulin’s editing, which is sometimes jittery and sometimes almost unbearably sedate, as Winner observes a snail on the windowsill, or listens to the noises of the agents tramping through her house.
But even with such expert filmmaking at her disposal, and with her cast note-perfect in delivering every “um” and every cough, every non-sequitur and every mumbled aside (the transcript is available online if you want to compare), Satter’s approach continually insists we not take everything at face value, and distrust our own impulses to suspend disbelief. When we stumble on a moment where the transcript was censored, the image flickers and glitches, sometimes erasing the characters altogether as though Winner herself were being redacted. Even the pruning of the transcript is highlighted: At various junctures a title appears indicating how far we are into the recording, which marks out both the film’s grounding in fact, and its artifice. At one point Winner expresses her annoyance that her bosses have Fox News playing continually in the office (“Uh, just at least, for God’s sake, put Al Jazeera on, or a slideshow with people’s pets.”) But Satter’s smart, self-aware framing ensures her film cannot be accused of Fox-like distortions and manipulations, by reminding us that everything we watch, even the most rigorous reportage, is constructed and shaped into narratives by people with some agenda or other.
One of the strangest quirks of this whole saga, and its subsequent remolding by Satter into a chillingly instructive lesson in the unstoppable mechanics of state power, is that it was revealed in the course of the trial that Winner was never read her Miranda rights. She was never informed of her right to silence, never advised of her right to a lawyer. And she was never formally cautioned that “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Whether you consider her breach of security traitorous or patriotic, it would be hard to watch “Reality” and not feel some sympathy for Winner, who wasn’t seeking fame or self-promotion, but following the dictates of her conscience. Satter’s taut, surprising “Reality” won’t change your mind on whistleblower ethics, but at least on a human level, it proves that sometimes what you say can be used for you too.