25-year-old former American intelligence specialist Reality Winner is confronted by FBI agents arriving at her home. Based on true events, Tina Satter’s film’s dialogue is directly from the transcript of their tense, transfixing conversation.
Born in the USAby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Reality Winner (played by an exceptional Sydney Sweeney) – a real name that seems too good to be true – appears to be an ordinary 25-year-old, into yoga classes and power lifting, and the owner of a cat and a rescue dog. But she is also a language specialist, fluent in Pashto, Dari and Farsi, former air force person, employed as a contractor to the NSA.
One afternoon, as she returns from shopping, she is waylaid by two FBI agents – Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis) – who want to question her ‘voluntarily’. At no time is she offered access to a lawyer, nor does she ask for one. She makes a point of being ‘compliant’. The reason is later revealed.
Altogether, maybe eight or ten FBI officers turn up to search her home and seal it off as a crime scene. She appears to be a small, frail young woman, totally overwhelmed and outnumbered by burly men.
Tina Satter has turned her stage play Is This a Room into a gripping film and stunning debut. She still uses the dialogue of the real-life transcripts, with all its ums and ers, and bumbling, awkward word salads. The film is punctuated by putting the transcripts on screen from time to time and neon-coloured breaks in continuity indicate where something in the transcript has been redacted.
What follows is an elaborate cat and mouse game. The FBI agents know something – someone has leaked information about Russian intervention in the 2016 US elections – and they know how this encounter is going to end. Winner knows what they know but she’s not going to tell them. Sidney Sweeney looks so vulnerable and alone in the bare room where the interrogation takes place: the agents’ seemingly innocuous conversational asides are actually manipulative interrogation techniques. The FBI control each interaction minutely, though midway through the questioning, Winner tries desperately to regain some control.
Reality is unbelievably involving, even though, because it is based on real events, you know how it ends. Reality Winner was given a very harsh sentence, the longest ever imposed for unauthorised release of government information to the media. She was released on parole for good behaviour in June 2021.
Reality premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is released on 2 June 2023 in the UK. #RealityFilm @VertigoRel