Playwright Tina Satter found a redacted transcript online of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner, a twenty-five-year-old Air Force member contracted to translate for the NSA, who leaked classified documents regarding Russian interference in the 2016 US election to a US website, The Intercept. Satter turned the transcript into a play, Is This A Room, and then, along with James Paul Dallas, adapted the transcript into a near-verbatim film titled, simply, Reality. The actual dialogue spoken between Reality, played by Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney, and two FBI agents is verbatim from that transcript, the only deviations come from little flourishes added to alleviate the stifling tension mounting within Reality’s innocuous suburban home.
The film, which runs a lean eighty-two minutes, unfolds in almost real time, as Reality returns home from a Saturday shopping trip to find FBI Agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (R. Wallace Taylor) on her doorstep. It’s been twenty-five days since someone leaked documents related to Russian election interference to The Intercept. At first, the agents are affable; friendly, even. They ask if Reality wants to put her perishables away, they are impressed by her ability to speak Pashto, Farsi, and Dari. Reality frets about her pets and makes a slight joke about her fat cat.
But the first ominous bell tolls when the agents ask, all cheerful, helpful intent, if they can just “do this here”, as in, speak to Reality at home, just the three of them. By not going to their field office, they don’t have to Mirandize her or remind her she can call a lawyer. Reality does not seem to know this, and already anxious about what the FBI agents might know, she agrees to keep things on such friendly footing. This film serves a giant reminder to never talk to cops, always call a lawyer, but more, it shows how insidious interrogation really is.
Because Reality IS being interrogated. She knows from the moment she sees them that the agents know something, she just doesn’t know what they know, and in early stages, she tries to suss it out, to save herself, but they are always several steps ahead of her. Reality is not an idiot, but she is overmatched by the agents, who expertly lead her down seemingly random and harmless verbal paths until she is a twisted knot of sweaty tension, ultimately confessing that yes, she leaked the documents.
It is a masterclass in demonstrating how law enforcement officers manipulate the law and constitutional rights to achieve their ends. It’s a disaster from the start, no amount of friendly banter or Reality’s attempts to offer alternate scenarios for the leak can ever best the agents’ obvious experience in leading suspects into confessions. That she actually did leak the documents is beside the point, the agents are too practiced not to have exploited countless suspects in this exact same way. Satter’s film focuses tightly on Reality Winner, but it’s very easy to pull back and imagine this exact game run against someone innocent, and how disastrous that outcome can be, too.
Most of the film takes place in Reality’s bland home—the banality of the setting, of the people, of their tone of voice, becomes more insidiously evil as the agents lead Reality down their desired interrogatory path—but Satter, who also directs, breaks away occasionally for visual relief. The image occasionally flickers black to signify redacted portions of the transcript, and there are brief flashbacks to the NSA, where Reality watched election coverage on Fox News.
And Sweeney is simply phenomenal, holding the screen for the entire film, infusing Reality with a slow-burn desperation that is genuinely moving. She knowingly broke the law, but she did it in service of what she saw as a higher moral truth, and Sweeney depicts that conviction with a simplicity that is almost heart-breaking. Reality never seems younger than when she is pinned to the metaphorical wall, knowing she’s going down but still sure in her decision to tell the truth. She is literally the only person speaking concerned with the truth.
Whatever you may think of Reality Winner, Reality is a deeply upsetting film. It’s not about the leak itself, it’s about a system built to punish dissent. The FBI agents are more concerned with the whistleblower than the international crime she exposed, and the blatant disregard for civil liberties and constitutional rights is beyond angering. They had proof Reality leaked the documents—because the folks behind The Intercept profoundly bungled handling said documents—so there was no real need to do this to Reality. It’s a form of torture, plain and simple. Even more infuriating, a postscript states that the very documents Reality leaked were later introduced on the US Senate floor as evidence of election interference, validating their relevance to the American public.
When corruption in law enforcement or the justice system is exposed, “one bad apple” is the excuse most frequently given. Reality, however, is about corruption of the system itself, from manipulating a scared young woman into sacrificing her right to counsel, to punishing the whistleblower and not pursuing the crime she exposed.
Reality depicts a system totally uninterested in justice but dedicated only to agenda. It would be more terrifying, if that hasn’t been the political reality of America for years now, but it is still a sharp reminder that “innocent until proven guilty” sounds good, but it is an empty promise. If the system wants you, the system will get you, and the agents interrogating you will not lose sleep over trampling on your rights. Reality isn’t a docudrama, it’s a cautionary tale.
This review was published during the WGA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers. Reality is now streaming on Max.