Sydney Sweeney is at Her Best in Tense True Story
Feb 20, 2023
In 2017, former US Air Force translator Reality Winner leaked an intelligence report revealing Russia’s attempted interference in 2016’s US presidential elections. While Winner acted out of her sense of patriotic duty, she nevertheless committed a crime. So, it isn’t surprising that Winner was arrested and convicted. What’s shocking is that Winner got the longest prison sentence ever for the unauthorized release of government documents to the media.
The FBI transcripts from Winner’s interrogation and arrest shed a grim light on the matter, showing how sexism and party inclinations played a part in the translator’s excessive punishment. That’s why Tina Satter decided to turn the transcripts into the gripping Broadway play Is This A Room, which the playwright is now turning into a movie in her film debut. Like in the original play, Reality reproduces the original audio recording of Winner’s interrogation to the letter, keeping faithful to every pause, cough, laugh, and bark in the background. However, Reality is not a reproduction of Is This a Room, as Satter gets her hands dirty in film language to make a tense story even more compelling in a remarkable directorial debut.
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Starring Sydney Sweeney as Winner, Reality opens with a superposition of reenactments and audio tracks, underlining how everything we see on the silver screen is taken from the original recording made by FBI agents during their raid on the translator’s house. For the entire duration of Winner’s interrogation, Reality will remind the viewer these are factual events by adding small snippets of recordings, official documents, photos, Winner’s Instagram posts, and even news programs. While Reality is not a documentary, Satter uses reality as raw material to constantly remind us what Winner went through. At the same time, the director also finds creative ways to make redacted passages have weight in the story by playing around with image distortions and characters displacement.
While Winner would be accused of betraying her country out of hate for the United States, reduced to a vile disruptor, the interrogation records paint a more complex picture. Winner was angry at the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and caught in the middle of the political turmoil that swept America. Still, she doesn’t conform to the image of a resentful progressive, as she still keeps automatic rifles in her house for personal protection and dedicates her life to serving the Armed Forces. There was no master plan behind Winner’s action, as she was just a human being, filled with contradictions, who decided to act on impulse after finding a document that was so important for US history that the Senate would recognize its public interest.
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By giving the audience access to Winner’s interrogation dialogue, Reality provides a glimpse of a confused and insecure woman who bit off more than she could chew and was caught red-handed for a crime she didn’t even realize the gravity of. Reality also does a great job showing how gender roles played a big part in Winner’s conviction, as she’s corned by a group of patronizing FBI agents who show genuine surprise by her physical and intellectual achievements. Using the weight of the position, the FBI agents try to turn Winner into a frail thing that’ll bend to their will, with no lawyer around to counsel the young woman. That, combined with Winner’s explicit political preferences, made her an example for the nation with an unfair charge considering her crimes.
Reality also finds time to denounce the irresponsible action of the media regarding Winner’s whistleblowing. Winner felt the world had to know about this dangerous political attack, and decided to act by sending classified information to The Intercept. And the same outlet that promises to embrace whistleblowers betrays journalism ethics by giving away the name of the source that offered them the classified document.
Winner’s mistake would open the country to an essential discussion about national security and the reliability of the electoral system. Still, she got betrayed by the media that used her leaking to gain fame before getting a harsh conviction that seems to be more linked to her gender and political preferences than to the gravity of her crime. Reality turns this complex case into a thrilling exploration of the police system, never daring to reduce its characters to the simplistic parts they would play in news stories.
Due to Reality’s spacial and temporal constraints, the movie could only work with an impeccable cast, which it fortunately has. On that note, Sweeney gives the best performance of her career, turning every small trembling and hesitation in the voice of Winner’s original audio into a source of inspiration to bring a layered character to life. Sweeney’s take on Winner reflects the emotional whirlwind the young woman went through after FBI agents showed up in her footsteps. Thanks to her, Reality is a mesmerizing experience that doesn’t hold any punches and will shake any viewer to their core.
Reality had its world premiere at 2023’s Berlin Film Festival.
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