“Do you have any pets?” When the FBI called at Reality Winner’s Georgia home in June 2017, the agency didn’t exactly start out playing hardball; in fact it, took the better part of hour even to start getting down to brass tacks with the 25-year-old. We know this because the whole event was recorded on a hidden wire and transcribed as evidence for Winner’s subsequent trial. New York director Tina Satter first fashioned this transcript, with zero embellishment, into a critically acclaimed stage play called Is This a Room in 2019, and in Reality, which premiered in the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama strand, she expands it into an astonishingly effective docu-drama hybrid.
Reality Winner’s misdemeanor didn’t quite put her in the league of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, and, in a way, Satter’s film leans into that. Many know the name, and perhaps also the sulfurous flash of notoriety that followed her arrest, but the larger part of Reality is the lead-in. It’s hard even to think of a film like it; the verbatim process has been used before — two relatively recent British examples would be Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010) and Rufus Norris’s London Road (2015). But both those projects were based on edited interviews; Reality, on the other hand, exists in a series of uninterrupted stretches, and it’s quite remarkable how easily it becomes cinematic.
RELATED: Deadline’s Berlin Film Festival Coverage
So what did Reality Winner actually do? If you don’t know, or can’t quite recall, then go in cold, since what she says she did and didn’t do — and what the FBI knows or doesn’t know — are the shifting sands that the film is built on. In the opening scenes, we see Winner at work as a contract linguist in the offices of Pluribus, where she translates sensitive documents from Farsi and Pashto. When Winner (played by Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney) returns home to find a couple of strangers outside her house, she doesn’t seem much bothered, even when they show her their FBI badges (she will later claim her underreaction is ascribable to a case of “resting bitch face”). These two surprisingly affable men, Agent Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Agent Taylor (Marchánt Davis) — AKA Justin and Wally — have some questions to ask her, but these take an awful long time to materialize as the FBI search team gets to work.
That the film is about politics goes without saying, but above that it is a fascinating insight into the subtleties of human interaction. The two agents are impeccably behaved and almost absurdly courteous, which is in itself quite disturbing, and we see the confusion on Reality’s face as she tries to figure them out. Sweeney is excellent here, in the kind of unshowy role that worked out well for Julia Garner in The Assistant, another film about a woman in a man’s world that this very much resembles. But so too are the agents; Hamilton taps into the warmth and sincerity he brought to the father in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, while Davis smartly riffs on his role in Chris Morris’s The Day Shall Come, a savage satire about FBI entrapment in which he played the entrapped.
Morris, whose jihadi comedy Four Lions was loosely inspired by terrorist surveillance tapes, is a stretch as a comparison here, since there are no broadly comedic moments in Reality, but Satter does share Morris’s interest in the banal details that these kinds of investigations reveal. We hear about Agent Garrick’s gym injuries, find out that Reality has a pink AR-17, learn that she runs classes at Yeah Yoga, and lied about her weight on her driver’s license (the real Reality’s Instagram account is often pressed into service to reinforce this kind of intel and further blur the lines). And, yes, there are pets: Reality’s cat gets some screen time, but, for a time, her rescue dog is by far the biggest topic of conversation.
Given the premise, it’s probably no spoiler to say that Satter’s film isn’t really able to come to a concrete resolution when it comes to Winner’s motives, although Fox TV is seen to have had a part to play (“You can’t turn on the TV without getting pissed off,” Agent Garrick sympathizes, with a surprisingly heartfelt note of understanding). It does, however, draw attention to the concept of preferential treatment, luring us into the belief that Winning is being handled with kid gloves as an otherwise sensible young, white, middle-class woman who may have simply been carried away in a moment of madness.
However, this film arrives at a time in America when, right across Rep/Dem party lines, harboring confidential documents seems to be all the rage, and when the hammer of ‘justice’ comes down on her, as revealed in the closing credits, Reality is a telling reminder that the only people that really get preferential treatment are the entitled few, for whom there appear to be no repercussions at all.
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.