Reality, now on HBO and Max (but not HBO Max because it no longer exists), took a compelling meta-route from lowercase-r reality to a film in which Reality Winner is played by breakout Euphoria and The White Lotus star Sydney Sweeney. The movie is even more BOATS (Based On A True Story) than most BOATS movies, and here’s why: You likely know that Ms. Winner is a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a document about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections to news site The Intercept, and went to prison for it. Playwright Tina Satter took a transcript of Winner’s interrogation by the FBI and turned it into self-explanatory stage production Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, and subsequently adapted the play into her directorial film debut, Reality. And that “verbatim transcription” has a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction quality that makes for fascinating drama.
REALITY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: In a rare scene that doesn’t occur at Reality Winner’s (Sweeney) home, we see her at work, in an office cubicle; nearby, two televisions show Fox News broadcasts about former FBI director James Comey’s firing by then-President Donald Trump. How anyone of any ideological bent can function in the workplace with that on in the background is mind-boggling, but it ended up being a catalyst for Reality’s actions. Anyway, a subtitle: 25 days later. June 3, 2017. Augusta, Georgia. Reality pulls up to her house with a carful of groceries and, before she can go inside, she’s greeted with awkwardly passive-aggressive geniality by two FBI agents, Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchant Davis). They say their visit has something to do with “possible mishandling of classified information.” They have search warrants. Reality makes a wholly innocent move toward her car – I think she was worried about perishables among her groceries – and an SUV quickly enters the frame. Other FBI agents arrive, numbering a couple shy of a dozen. One starts demarcating her yard with crime scene tape. Occasionally, the scene cuts to a visual of the transcript, a reminder that everything being said here is “verbatim.”
She knows why they’re there, and they know that she knows why they’re there, but all cards are close to the vest for the time being. She has a dog and a cat, which they allow her to secure before they get too deep into searching her home – and get to their own cat-related game, namely, some verbal cat-and-mouse. Reality and Agents Taylor and Garrick chitchat about their rescue dogs and workout regimes and we can only think to ourselves, WHY, but at least they’re being nice about it I guess? It’s so awkward, it’s hard to listen to. They ask about her background, and we learn that Reality was in the Air Force, and speaks Farsi, Dari and Pashto, and works as a translator for an NSA contractor, and has this and that security clearance. It’s a very nice, summery day out here in the yard, having a nice convo about work and puppies; meanwhile we hear FBI agents in the house bumping and thumping around, and occasionally we cut to shots of them flipping through her books and evidence-bagging her laptop. Agent Taylor has her phone and can’t figure out how to unlock it, and there’s a whole little exchange about how to do that, made all the more awkward because he won’t let her touch it so she’s got to explain how you slide your finger there and then up and then there you go.
My subjective interpretation of Reality’s demeanor in this situation is as follows: She sure seems like someone who’s nervous but trying not to be nervous. What are the physical tells of someone who’s lying again? Avoiding eye contact, shifting weight from one foot to another, verbal cues like pauses and “I can’t remember”s? I can’t remember all of them, but they sure seem to be present in her dodgy mannerisms. Agent Taylor moves them inside so they can speak more openly, and the only room in Reality’s house where they can have privacy is an empty, grubby back room with no furniture in it and a snail slowly crawling across a window ledge. So, more awkwardness as the two agents stand and she stands and they ask her questions and she leans against a cement-block wall and stammers through wheres and whens and, eventually, whys, and Agent Taylor struggles to take notes because he doesn’t have a chair to sit in or a table to sit at. There’s a moment when it gets real, and it’s when Satter cuts to a shot of a document with the big black marks on it denoting REDACTED information, and whenever Reality references such sensitive intelligence, the sound goes garbled. Doesn’t matter. None of this is really about what’s said. It’s about what happens between the lines.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Two relevant titles: The 2021 documentary United States vs. Reality Winner, for obvious reasons, and The Comey Rule, the Showtime two-parter starring Jeff Daniels as Comey (and Brendan Gleeson as Trump!), for some (fictionalized) context.
Performance Worth Watching: Anyone questioning whether Sweeney’s capable of losing herself in a character should closely study her many closeups in Reality. (And then navigate over to Amazon Prime Video and fire up her overlooked/underrated 2020 horror headliner Nocturne.)
Memorable Dialogue: Reality gets a bit raw as she finally gets to the nitty-gritty of what’s going on here: “I didn’t care about myself at that point.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Again, let’s note the path this story took – a two-hour audio recording of Reality’s interrogation by FBI agents became a printed transcription that became the “script” for a stage play and then for a film that’s slightly stagey but a highly effective exercise in nonverbal performance, you know, the stuff an actor does beyond reading lines from a page. Tone and inflection are surely conveyed in the recording, and one can only imagine how awkward the real exchange is in comparison to the discomfort we feel in this fictionalized, edited dramatization of it. Do a few degrees of narrative separation and several years of retrospective distance provide more insight into the case of Reality Winner? I think so. And Satter seems to be touching upon the Werner Herzogian ecstatic truth of the situation (notably, she doesn’t necessarily tip her hand until a title-card postscript implies sympathy for Reality).
By honing in on the unspoken details of this specific moment in U.S. history, this stripped-down, nearly real-time, almost single-location drama erupts with implications – political, personal, procedural. We watch Reality knowing that its real-life protagonist was severely punished for printing an NSA document about Russian election interference, sneaking it out of the office in her pantyhose and mailing it to The Intercept. We know the U.S. government made an example out of her, sentencing her to 63 months in prison, compared to slap-on-the-wrist sentences given to more powerful higher-ups. We know she was let out early for good behavior. We know she was tried under the problematic and vague century-old Espionage Act. We know she received support from whistleblowers like Julian Assange. We know there are two sides we could take here – that she may be a hero of sorts for making public information the public needed to know, or that she deserved some retribution for unilaterally declassifying sensitive information.
The key word in that last statement is “could.” Reality exists in the gray area existing between the letter of the law – and interpretations of the letter of the law – and the person facing the brunt of it. The greater story reeks of unfairness, of a massive institution coming down hard on a young woman; the story within that story is of a young woman who was caught between what’s illegal and what she deemed to be the right thing; and the fine-tuned, highly detailed story of this film is the idiosyncratic, rhythmless, frequently surreal exchange between law enforcement and suspected perpetrator. Satter holds us in suspense as the principals do a they-know/she-knows/we-all-know verbal dance (and make us wonder if the patter among FBI agents is just that, or some type of coded communication; until now, I’ve never before taken the phrase “You have a toothpick?” at anything more than face value) and eventually reach a plausible climax punctuated with the click of handcuffs and a worried glance back at a beloved pet dog. And frankly, Sweeney acts her ass off here, encompassing Reality and truth and transcription, and it’s undeniably compelling.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Reality is a disquieting drama with an extraordinary central performance.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.