On the afternoon of June 3, 2017, Reality Winner parked her car in front of her modest home in Augusta, Georgia. A former member of the U.S. Air Force who was fluent in three Middle Eastern languages — Farsi, Dari, and Pashto — she’d worked as a linguist before getting a contracting job with the NSA. Two FBI agents are there to greet her in the driveway. They have a warrant to search the premises, her car, her phone, her person. Is there anybody else inside the house? Suddenly, more cars and more Feds show up. The agents just have a few questions to ask her, if she doesn’t mind.
Everything is so polite. Yet it feels like a bomb is ticking quietly in the background, just minutes away from detonation.
It’s the casual menace of these initial encounters, all of which Reality goes to great pains to recreate, that puts you, the viewer, on edge. Using dialogue taken from IRL recorded transcripts, this HBO original drama lets the questioning of this seemingly innocuous woman unfold one tossed-off comment at a time. Reality (Sydney Sweeney) seems more or less unfazed by the men and women swarming her front yard. She’s more worried about her perishable groceries and her pets. Oh, you have a dog?, asks Agent Garrick (Josh Hamilton). Yes, she’s a rescue. He loves dogs, too. The small talk, along with the man’s genial manner and suburban-dad fashion sense, make you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a summer cookout. Until Winner rushes to close the front door so her cat doesn’t get out, and Garrick’s partner, Agent Taylor (Marchánt Davis), nearly tackles her.
There’s an unspoken assumption on the part of writer-director Tina Satter’s debut that we already know Winner’s story, where it’s heading, and what the consequences of her actions were. The dread is exactly when and how the hammer is going to drop. Winner and the two agents eventually retire to a desolate back room — she keeps apologizing for how dirty it is — where they turn the good cop/bad cop routine on in full. So she works for a firm that subcontracts with the government agency? Has she ever come across classified documents? Or maybe removed any from the building? Is she absolutely sure that she hasn’t “inadvertently, or maybe intentionally” shared some documents that don’t directly pertain to her area of expertise?
Reality has no sooner settled into this interrogation procedural groove than Satter and her co-writer, James Paul Dallas, begin throwing in a few disruptive moves. Cut-aways to WAV. recordings and exchanges being typed out in a dossier-friendly manner remind you that you’re watching a true story, presented with a rigorous just-the-facts-ma’am fidelity. Then Garrick mentions something that’s been redacted in the original file, and the sound gets dissonant. Another redacted subject comes up, and Winner visually glitches and disappears, as if she’d teleported out of the image altogether. Then she glitches back in. The more Garrick and Taylor exchange glances, signaling about what they know — and what they know she’s not telling them — the more the center can’t hold. It’s as if the very fabric of Reality is falling apart.
The film eventually stops playing coy, filling in the blanks: Winner passed along intelligence briefings, about possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, to The Intercept. She was caught, convicted under the Espionage Act, and given a five-year sentence, one of the longest prison terms ever handed down to a whistleblower. Whether you consider Winner a patriot or a traitor isn’t something that Reality is interested in, or at least it isn’t prioritizing your personal opinion one way or the other. This is not Cinema du Op-Ed. Rather, Satter and her co-conspirators want you to focus on the case itself, something that often got short shrift as discussions kept turning to the morality of whistleblowing. The one refrain we keep hearing from the agents is, “Why?” The movie wants you to ask that as well. It doesn’t want to sway you, but it would like to consider why such information was considered top-secret classified. And maybe, while you’re at it, remember that next year is an election year as well.
It has a secondary agenda, to be fair, and that’s to give a talented actor a spotlight of her own. Reality was not designed to be a star vehicle above all else, yet this lives or dies on whether the person at the center of this political storm brings you along on her journey. Sweeney has been acting for over a decade, distinguishing herself as a clutch-cargo supporting player and an excellent addition to ensembles. She was nominated for not one but two Emmys in the same year.
Yet Sweeney has never been given a lead role, nor has she had to do the sort of work required of her here. Winner has to present a Teflon facade, along with a naïveté and an ability to deftly deflect. Then, once what she’s done gets dragged further into the light, the character has to unravel in a way that doesn’t suggest grandstanding or digging into a buffet of chompable scenery. All this, while reciting the same halting pauses and everyday-conversation dialogue from the actual event. The degree of difficulty is high.
And Sweeney seems to nail all of it, somehow convincing you that you’re watching this test of wills, slow-mo meltdown, and ultimately, pleading of her case without being melodramatic or minimalist to the point of not registering anything at all. It’s a hell of a performance, this anti-performance that gives you impressions of layers without turning their peeling back into a look-ma showcase. There are moments when even Hamilton and Davis seem out-of-character in awe at what they’re witnessing. We’ve seen Sweeney do troubled teens, superiority-complex terrors, gamines, Gen-Z martyrs, and even a throwback damsel in danger. This feels like the first time she’s had to really step up and own a role that carries a film, and she ends up being the X factor that separates Reality from true-crime karaoke. Sweeney has finally got her serious-actor moment and delivered. May a thousand flowers bloom from this for her.