‘Reality’ is a thrilling take on government whistleblowing in the US
Showing in our Houses from Saturday 3 June and starring Sydney Sweeney, the film is a gripping portrayal of a whistleblower whose sentence far outweighs their crime
Saturday 27 May 2023. By Hanna Flint
When I sat down to watch Reality, the feature debut of playwright and theatre director Tina Satter, I knew nothing about it beyond the cast and the director. You might think that’s a bit odd for a film critic, but sometimes I prefer to take this approach to reviewing. I enjoy going into films without any preconceived ideas, so I can achieve the purist reaction. If you’re not into that sort of thing, then please do read on.
From the title, I imagined Reality was a sort of Gia Coppola-esque take on reality show culture. Certainly, with Sydney Sweeney in the lead role, who has been on my radar ever since her breakthrough as Cassie in the formidable Gen Z saga Euphoria, that guess wasn’t beyond the scope of possibility. To my surprise and enjoyment, however, this 80-minute thriller was nothing of the sort. It tells the true story of Reality Winner, a young American woman and military translator who was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison for leaking government information on Russian interference of the US election to the media – the longest ever sentence bestowed for this sort of crime. Satter adapted the film from her own 2019 stage play Is This A Room, and by the end of the film I concluded that it’s one of the sharpest and most intriguing examinations of government whistleblowing in the US ever made.
Real-life whistleblowing has provided bountiful fodder for cinema over the years. All The President’s Men gave new meaning to ‘deep throat’ in our mainstream lexicon when it presented the gritty journalistic endeavours of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to expose the Watergate scandal with the help of the aforementioned anonymous source. Steven Spielberg’s The Post recently told the behind-the-scenes story of how The Washington Post’s publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee worked to expose the US government’s secret warfare during Vietnam (through the Pentagon Papers leaked military analyst Daniel Ellsberg) in typically glossy Hollywood fashion.
And who can forget Oliver Stone’s Snowden, a biographical thriller charting former CIA subcontractor Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing of highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) about nefarious surveillance enterprises. The film is at its best when it’s getting into Snowden’s tense efforts to steal secrets, but Stone embellishes some facts to reinforce the drama. Rhys Ifans’ character Corbin O’Brian, for example, is not a real person. His name is a very on-the-nose nod to George Orwell’s 1984 and is a ‘Big Brother’ amalgamation of many senior officials who Snowden worked under.
Reality similarly centres the whistleblower in this film, but rather than tracing a long timeline of Winner’s life before, during and after the leaking event, Satter acutely closes in on the specific moments of her arrest to charged effect. You can tell this was based on a play because the bulk of the story occurs in one place, Winner’s bungalow, where she’s greeted by two FBI agents, R. Wallace Taylor (Marchánt Davis) and Justin C. Garrick (Josh Hamilton) after picking up some groceries. You need strong actors to be able to carry the weight of a film when there are no other set pieces or set-ups to excite. And this is not a film where brash, over-the-top theatricality is the flavour du jour. It is a film committed to presenting the facts of the situation through an FBI interrogation that is used verbatim in the script. Every line of dialogue, stutter, filled pause or hesitation is uttered by Sweeney, Davis, Hamilton, et al, in exactly the way their real-life counterparts spoke. We know this because Satter informs us at the beginning, but also through cuts to a transcript that remind you just how real this sh*t got. Sharp edits to audio waves, flashbacks and clever execution of redacted portions of the interview add a psychological intensity as Winner tries to navigate the threat in front of her.
Sweeney impressively rises to the challenge of connecting you with her troubled character. She exhibits an interiority through her eyes, her nervous movements and careful execution of dialogue to heighten the ambiguity over her criminal actions. Davis and Hamilton equally show restraint, never falling into the trap of good cop/ bad cop or procedural stereotypes by presenting an almost mundane interrogation of their suspect. Satter’s no-frills direction doesn’t short-change the tension, but reinforces it to chilling effect. Who needs dramatic heroes and villains when the grounded reality is far more nerve-wracking? Not Satter.
Reality lives up to this name to present a non-judgmental, empathetic and gripping portrayal of a whistleblower whose sentence far outweighed their crime.
Watch ‘Reality’ at the Houses from Saturday 3 June; visit our screenings page for our full film schedule.