Reality: a hyperreal study of an interrogation

Starring Sydney Sweeney as the Pynchonesquely named whistleblower Reality Winner, this filmic restaging of Winner’s questioning by the FBI in her own home is a tense, expertly modulated study in state control and the vulnerability of truth-tellers.

21 February 2023

By Nicolas Rapold

Sydney Sweeney as Reality Winner in Reality (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

Director Tina Satter goes granular with the details in her story of the 25-year-old American whistleblower Reality Winner, who was arrested in 2017 for leaking a report to investigative news outlet The Intercept that confirmed Russian hacking of US presidential voting systems. Satter, adapting her critically acclaimed 2019 play Is This a Room, dramatises Winner’s arrest by mining dialogue verbatim from FBI agents’ own transcripts of their wholly recorded visit to her home. The expertly staged and modulated result lends an eerie hyperreality and tension to the already theatrical and uncanny act of interrogation.

Remarkably, considering the semi-experimental stage source, Satter casts Euphoria (2019-) and The White Lotus (2021-) star Sydney Sweeney as Winner, and without directing the actor to deliver a righteous yowl of outrage. Of course, that wouldn’t have fit the transcript anyway, which dutifully supplies the film’s chillingly banal circumstances: Winner is arrested after arriving at her single-level Augusta, Georgia house with groceries. She answers the initially desultory questioning of the FBI agents, outdoors and indoors, while searches of the premises proceed. Her biggest voiced concern is about the welfare of her cat and dog, because, as an NSA contractor (a Farsi/Dari/Pashto linguist), she thinks it might all be a routine security check.

Those pets – and her CrossFit routines, and other quotidian details – are soon the subject of questioning as the agents wend their way toward hardball inquiries and give her room to incriminate herself. But Satter’s high-fidelity approach also serves to express the totalising control of the all-male FBI team, whose rather personal queries could not possibly constitute actual banter, given the power dynamic. (Periodically, ‘glitch’ visual effects signal moments in the investigation that remain censored from the record.) It’s all ambiently menacing, even if the khaki-clad lead questioner is played by nebbishy Josh Hamilton as a kind of affably self-assured company man (though his colleagues skew don’t-mess-with-me burly).

Winner, an Air Force member and amateur weightlifter, has a self-deprecating humour and easygoing distractedness that Sweeney (who is about Winner’s age at the time of arrest) channels aptly. It’s possible to wonder whether Winner didn’t protect herself better because, at some level, she felt that she had done the right thing in informing voters of the threat to democracy: she held telling the truth to be self-evident. But not even sharing the gun enthusiasms of her FBI agents – who don’t blink when she says she has a pink AR-15 and a Glock – can save her from the inevitable handcuffing. Winner was later sentenced to an outsized five-year stint by the very Trump Administration that was helped to power by Russian agents, and Satter’s trenchant film uses the foregone conclusion of its structure to underline the tragic injustice of its heroine’s fate.

Reality is in UK cinemas from 2 June.

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