Reality Review – Tina Satter’s Almost-Thriller is Daring and Dynamic Cinema with a Lead Performance that is Flawless

Reality screens at the Sydney Film Festival on June 11, 12, and 17, ahead of a national release later in 2023.

“I knew it was secret.

But I also knew I had pledged service to the American People.”

Reality Leigh Winner.

Reality Winner, in her own words, is no Snowden. She never set out to be a spy or a whistle-blower. Her main goal in life was to keep her security clearance so she could be deployed as a translator with the special services. In every external way, Reality Winner was a patriot. An ex-veteran of the U.S. Air Force who spoke three languages (Farsi Dari Pashto) and worked a series of government jobs including the military contractor Pluribus International Corporation. At the age of twenty-five her life consisted of work, CrossFit, competitive lifting, and Instagramming healthy meals and her fitness routine, and taking solo trips to places she wanted to see. She also liked Hello Kitty, drawing animated characters, and her pets.

On June 3, 2017, Reality Winner was arrested for improper handling of government documents. FBI agents were at her Augusta home with a warrant when she arrived there after a grocery run. The two agents who questioned her, Justin Garrick and Wally Taylor recorded the interrogation. Tina Satter used the transcript of the interrogation to craft her 2019 play Is This a Room. Satter has turned her play into the feature film Reality starring Sydney Sweeney as Winner and Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis respectively as Garrick and Taylor.

Reality is a remarkably tense almost thriller. Satter uses the stripped back nature of the work to allow Sweeney to convey Reality’s fear and distress. Close up shots on Sweeney are suffocating and as she begins to realise there is no way out of the situation with the casual, friendly, but dogged agents, Satter makes Sweeney’s every expression a beat of pressure. Despite the set-up not seeming inherently cinematic, Satter’s film is immersive and her flourishes which mix shots of the transcript itself, the voices of Winner and the agents, actual photographs of Winner, and flashbacks to what really occurred blend together seamlessly. When a piece of information is redacted Satter chooses a disorienting form of technological interference. Reality’s “reality” is crumbling.

Set mostly in Reality’s front yard, and then a disused and unfurnished room in her modest house (the room that the title of the play refers to) it is up to Satter and the actors to bring visual life to the transcript which is acted with all the mistakes and human repetition that it originally contained. We watch as Reality complies with the agents, slightly confused to why they are there, but also aware that she may have been caught for leaking documents taken from the NSA’s internal network to the new site ‘The Intercept.’ The documents Winner leaked were reports of Russian hackers influencing the Trump election. Satter shows Reality watching Fox News every day at work and seeing Trump fire Comey. Other than this flashback and another showing Reality standing near a letterbox Reality stays within Winner’s home which becomes a space of “unreality” at times for the protagonist as she parses the consequences she will face for her actions.

Ironically, using the transcripts leads to a certain lack of naturalism in the film. Audiences are used to polished dialogue in fictional films. Human beings don’t speak like actors who have their lines precisely written for them. The dialogue is authentic, and it creates a disconnect as well as providing the truth. Sweeney, Hamilton, and Davis have to interpret how the interrogation happened while making it dramatically plausible and retaining the veracity of the tapes. Each actor gives a magnificent performance. Sweeney proves that she has immense skill. Her reactions to the noises in the house as the agents search her belongings show the weight of anxiety on the young woman. Understanding that she has already been found out and the agents just need the specific how (not when) and mostly the why of what Winner did is mapped out through her exhaustion and defeat.

“I’m not a sophisticated person,” Winner says. It’s true, she’s not. She’s clearly intelligent and capable, but she had no idea how act covertly. It is suggested that perhaps all of it would have been avoided if Pluribus played nature videos all day instead of Fox News.

After Reality’s arrest, where she is mostly concerned with ensuring her pets are taken care of in her absence, Satter cuts to Reality speaking with her sister from prison, and then to the media scrutiny around her case. Again, Fox News plays and this time it is Tucker Carlson telling the nation that she was an “embedded threat.” Reality Winner was given the harshest sentence for mishandling government documents as a warning to other potential whistle-blowers. Yes, what she did was illegal, but the way the case was framed was to ensure that leaking a document with ‘systems and methods’ of a government agency to the press was charged under the Espionage Act. Reality was sentenced to over five years in prison where she will remain until at least 2024.

“Why can’t this get out there? With everything else that leaks?” Reality asks. Indeed, are the public not entitled to know that a foreign state potentially interfered in the democratic election of a world power? While Satter wants you to think about the ethics of Winner’s actions, the focus remains on creating a piece of important political cinema. Reality is not as flashy as Oliver Stone’s Snowden but the honestly of the work cannot be question, nor its value as a film. Tina Satter’s directorial debut is a striking work that cannot be dismissed in the contemporary era of politics and “post-truth narratives.” Sydney Sweeney’s performance alone is worth the audience’s time, and how the film is constructed and what it says is daring and dynamic.

Director: Tina Satter

Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, Marchánt Davis

Writers: Tina Satter, James Paul Dallas

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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