Reality Leigh Winner arrived home on 3 June, 2017 to find the FBI waiting for her. Suspected for leaking classified NSA documents to the press in relation to Russians hacking the US 2016 election, Winner would go on to be spoken about as a whistleblower, although she specifically said she isn’t “Snowden or anything”.
Director Tina Satter, in her feature film debut, takes the real-life FBI transcript of what happened on that June afternoon and has turned it into a nerve-shedding thriller. As Winner is a real-life person and many already know how her story unfolded, Satter squeezes that transcript for all its drama and tension.
Winner is portrayed by a wonderfully distraught Sydney Sweeney (White Lotus, Euphoria) here. It’s never easy to play a real person; where is the line between a performance and imitation and where should the balance between the two be in a film like Reality? Sweeney makes it look easy. Her remarkable performance is detailed and confident and helps to fill in the gaps left by the bare script, which can otherwise prove a tad frustrating as we know so little about Winner.
With the dialogue coming entirely from the transcript, it places Satter’s direction and the performances under an especially harsh microscope. Knowing that every cough, every mispronounced word was delivered in real life adds another element to Reality, one of strange authenticity. Suddenly, the performative politeness of the lead agents (played by Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) seem vaguely threatening and their concern for Winner’s dog seems weird and unsettling.
Reality is pleasingly, deceivingly simple. It makes sense Satter originally adapted the transcript into a play; most of it takes place in a single room between three people. The film allows for a slightly larger scope, but Satter keeps the focus almost unbearably tight. The tension never sprouts from whether or not Winner did what she is accused of here; it stems from the uneasy dynamic between her and the agents interrogating her.
As a debut film, Reality is very impressive. Satter’s direction is assured and she never resorts to any gimmicks. Satter excels in communicating the smaller nuances of the story and it’s inspiring; a quick shot of a toy car with the confederate flag, cut to an uncomfortable-looking Winner tells us all we need to know about where she lives and how she feels about it. This immediately gives Reality more colour. Satter’s trust in the story itself is strong and her instincts prove correct, in this utterly compelling watch.
Satter uses music sparingly, but to a great effect. The film often cuts to either the transcript being typed or the recording being played. Every time something has been redacted from the transcript, satter dramatically removes the whole actor from the frame rather than simply muting them. It’s a striking, visual choice but one that works incredibly well.
Reality plays things very straight. Although it’s clearly on Winner’s side and empathetic to how she was treated, Satter doesn’t weigh-in on her actions. Reality could have easily become a misguided biopic of an unlikely, unwilling whistleblower, lacking perspective or anything to say, but Satter’s chosen genre is an informed, intelligent choice.
Call it a docu-drama or just a drama, the meshing of both reality (no pun intended) and artistic licence here is fascinating, making Reality one of the most engrossing and awe-inspiring films of 2023.
Reality is in cinemas 2 June.