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Reality is stranger than fiction in this stunning verbatim recreation of whistleblower Reality Winner’s interrogation by the FBI — and Sydney Sweeney has never been better.
By Sarah Ward
June 29, 2023
By Sarah Ward
June 29, 2023

Sydney Sweeney is ready for her closeup. Playwright-turned-filmmaker Tina Satter obliges. A household name of late due to her exceptional work in both Euphoria and The White Lotus, Sweeney has earned the camera's attention for over a decade; however, she's never been peered at with the unflinching intensity of Satter's debut feature Reality. For much of this short, sharp and stunning docudrama, the film's star lingers within the frame. Plenty of the movie's 83-minute running time devotes its focus to her face, staring intimately and scrutinising what it sees. Within Reality's stranger-than-fiction narrative, that imagery spies a US Air Force veteran and National Security Agency translator in her mid-twenties, on what she thought was an ordinary Saturday. It's June 3, 2017, with the picture's protagonist returning from buying groceries to find FBI agents awaiting at her rented Augusta, Georgia home, then accusing her of "the possible mishandling of classified information".

Reality spots a woman facing grave charges, a suspect under interrogation and a whistleblower whose fate is already known to the world. It provides a thriller of a procedural with agents, questions, allegations and arrests; an informer saga that cuts to the heart of 21st-century American politics, and its specific chaos since 2016; and an impossible-to-shake tragedy about how authority savagely responds to being held to account. Bringing her stage production Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription to the screen after it wowed off-Broadway and then Broadway, Satter dedicates Reality's bulk to that one day and those anxious minutes, unfurling in close to real time — but, pivotally, it kicks off three weeks earlier with its namesake at work while Fox News plays around her office. Why would someone leak to the media a restricted NSA report about Russian interference in getting Donald Trump elected? Before it recreates the words genuinely spoken between its eponymous figure and law enforcement, Reality sees the answer as well.

Reality Winner boasted a moniker that no one would forget long before the events that she'd make international headlines for, and have inspired a play and now a film. Still, she couldn't have suspected, nor her father who gave it to her, that so many folks would learn who she was and what she's called — or why they'd do so. Satter's movie is in dialogue with its subject's distinctive name. It surveys Reality and reality by using reality, and it observes no winners. There's also no escaping the fact that reality is both precarious and subjective when it comes to Winner's deeds and others like them: Trump has been indicted for mishandling classified documents himself, with boxes of them found in his Mar-a-Lago home, but the likelihood of his penalty eclipsing the longest-ever sentence given by a US federal court for releasing government information is miniscule.

Everything is average, standard and nondescript when Winner (Sweeney, also a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Handmaid's Tale alum) pulls up outside of her house to discover an audience. Satter scripts with James Paul Dallas (Halston's archival producer), enlisting Paul Yee (Joy Ride) as Reality's cinematographer, plus Jennifer Vecchiarello (Thor: Love and Thunder) and Ron Dulin (Resurrection) as editors — and, before agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton, The Walking Dead) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis, A Journal for Jordan) start talking, the scene that the film spins, sees and splices couldn't appear more commonplace. The daytime sunlight streaming down doesn't brighten. Winner's brick abode could sit on any block almost anywhere. She's sans makeup, wearing a white shirt and cutoffs that she wouldn't have thought twice about. And, once the chatting begins, peppered as it is with routine small talk, it too is mundane.

Is Winner thirsty? What's the best way to handle her rescue dog? Will her cat bolt if the door is left open? Is there somewhere private, away from the other agents executing search warrants for her house, car and phone, where the trio can head to? These details comprise much of the early conversation, as laced with ums, aahs and awkward pauses. With no disrespect to the best screenwriters — the best at procedurals, too — every word and gap in Reality could've only sprung from real life. And there are purposeful holes, thanks to part of the chat remaining redacted in the publicly released transcripts that Satter works with. Her inventive and perceptive solution: glitching in and out, having the people affected disappear and reappear, and reminding audiences oh-so-savvily that every single take on reality is always just that, a take, and should always be inspected and unpacked.

With talk echoing — especially in a room that Winner doesn't usually use, describes as "weird" and "creepy", and looks as close as a space in someone's home can to a prison cell — Reality steps through why the agents are there, what they're chasing, their suspect's tale and her reaction. As crucial as words are to the film, and the exact words uttered off-screen at that, they only tell part of the story. They explain that Winner can speak Farsi, Pashto and Dari; aspires to be deployed to Afghanistan; trains in CrossFit and teaches yoga; and owns guns, including a pink AR-15. They establish Garrick as playing the nice guy among the FBI cohort, and Taylor as affable but sterner. They eventually lay out what Winner is accused of doing, and how. Satter witnesses what isn't spoken, though, such as the rigid physicality that sits in stark contrast to the agents' warmer tone — and the displays of force that are everywhere, simply because the FBI is everywhere, when Winner is permitted to squeeze into her kitchen to put her perishables away.

As every meticulously calculated stylistic choice ramps up the stress, Nathan Micay's (Industry) jittery score among them — and as Sweeney delivers a phenomenal masterclass in microexpressions that's a career-best performance to-date — Reality spots a gut-punch of an inescapable truth as well. We hope, think and are led to believe, aided by movies and TV shows, that significant instances and incidents feel significant; and yet big moments aren't actually always big moments, even when whistleblowing, revealing state secrets and the legal response are involved. Indeed, the movie's ripped-from-reality look and dialogue, plus its central naturalistic performance, are all calibrated to reinforce that sometimes life changes drastically when nothing huge initially seems to. Winner's existence was forever altered by the scenes that Satter displays, but Reality knows that no one was shouting and screaming that that was the case as it occurred. More than that, and with gripping chills and dripping dread, it puts viewers in Winner's shoes as her world turns — and ours — but the world keeps turning.

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