To put it mildly, the Donald Trump presidency had a few bumps in the road, and several controversies marred his election. One of those was an alleged collusion between Trump and Russia to affect voting machines, in which firing FBI director James Comey – who had recently announced an investigation into the potential of Russian voting interference – brought about much discussion on whether Trump had obstructed justice by doing so.
This specific controversy is the backdrop to Tina Satter’s REALITY, a real-time chamber piece about the NSA memo on Russian interference that leaked to the media in 2017, the consequences of which reverberated through the American justice system. On June 3rd, 2017 – 25 days after Trump fired Comey – the FBI disturbed 25-year-old air force veteran and linguist Reality Winner as she returned her groceries to her home in Augusta, Georgia. Her work translating Farsi to English, and her prior infraction of accidentally removing top secret information from the NSA building, has taken her to the top of the FBI’s whistleblower search list. The agents involved recorded the entire thing.
Adapting from her own play based on the interrogation transcript, ‘This Is A Room’, Satter takes on a Herculean task with REALITY, her debut feature: transforming a stage production into a compelling film, all while continuing to keep the same true information and dialogue of the interrogation transcript. The 82-minute film covers that 107-minute interrogation that took place between Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney), Special Agent Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Special Agent Taylor (Marchánt Davis), interpolating between the transcript, scribing itself across the screen, and the actors repeating the lines verbatim.
REALITY is a movie that benefits from as little knowledge of the events that follow as possible. Whether Reality Winner leaked the document or not is not pivotal within the framework of this riveting docu-thriller. The narrative’s turns are enriched by experiencing the film from Reality’s perspective, following her on the emotional journey she takes rather than already knowing her destination.
That being said, a critique of REALITY would not be able to do the film justice without contextualising that destination. In 2017, immediately following the brief interrogation – in which the agents constantly remind her that speaking to them is voluntary – Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison. Her actions, anonymously sending the top secret document detailing Russia’s attempts to affect the election to an online source, were seen as treasonous to the American government. She was made an example of as an act of political retribution. The sentence she received was the largest in history for the unauthorised spreading of classified material. Winner’s motivations are important here, as she cites “the public were being lied to” and “I am somebody who only acted out of love for what this country stands for.” The phenomenal Sweeney plays Winner with a squinted, timid disposition at first, unaware of why the FBI are there, only for her performance to slowly metastasise over the next hour into a shattering mirror for disillusioned Americans.
Satter aims to hold a mirror up to the American public and its governmental bias. The brief scenes outside the uncannily large single room, whose expansive area and tight framing make it seem as if the walls are closing in, show the NSA with Fox News on in the background (which steers eerily close to the regressive, bigoted ways that society deems a by-product of times gone past). The news channel is brazenly on display, spreading its vitriol to those with high clearance inside the NSA, entrenching a natural disgust inside Winner.
The film itself is a politically charged beast, emblematic of the discourse fuelled by Trumpian hyperbole. It is both unsubtle and exceptionally smart about these politics. The FBI transcript must feel like a golden goose for Satter, with multiple recorded voices and Winner’s voice handing her a rich palette of the contradictions inside the American people. Winner’s “for the people” mindset, which allowed her the confidence to release the document, doesn’t translate to her pink AR-15, glock, or 14-gauge shotgun. Yet, Winner’s gaze becomes transfixed on a confederate flag stuck on the side of an FBI robot. Showing these competing elements makes the film less about her cherry-picked martyrdom and more about the intricacies of power that the American people allocate themselves.
Satter’s translation from stage to screen isn’t as clean as it could have been: the film often feels quite staged, leaving the score to do a lot of heavy lifting. This feeling is partly because the back room of Winner’s house – the setting for the best part of an hour – is filled with a sense of humdrum claustrophobia. That sense works well for the FBI agents in their bid to seclude Winner from the rest of the house but also translates to the viewing experience and creates a desire to escape the confines of the room. The trio depicting the interrogation do amazing work. The softly spoken, slightly awkward FBI agents who slowly let slip their strong façade when they realise she isn’t a super secret spy, and Sweeney’s Winner, who showcases an incredible talent in maintaining a girl-next-door naivety throughout the film, until the shell-shocked whistleblower realises she’s about to be placed in handcuffs.
By augmenting itself through cleverly redacting phrases, helped with some intense sound design, REALITY becomes a film that transcends the simple tale of a whistleblower being caught. Led by a magnificent Sydney Sweeney, this captivating and clever docu-thriller invokes creative use of Reality Winner’s name to blend into a fantastic, stranger-than-fiction diorama of surrealist fact symbolic of the political fragments of the American populace.