tv Reality, Starring Sydney Sweeney, Is Unsettling, Vital Viewing
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.
When the play that would one day become the extraordinary drama Reality premiered off-Broadway, its whistleblower protagonist was still in a federal prison.
Back then, in February 2019, the show was called Is This a Room, an enigmatic quote from the show itself. An FBI agent looks into the place — it’s definitely a room — where two of his colleagues are interrogating the diminutive 25-year-old woman who lives there, and he makes the inquiry. He seems to be asking if the space needs to be searched. But it’s a strange, off-kilter query, one nobody would really know how to answer. Of course this is a room; what else would it be? It’s like asking where “here” is. Or whether reality exists.
There’s an ironic vigor to Reality’s narrative, a practically allegorical sense that it was constructed by a lightly ham-fisted author with something to prove. It’s a story about truth and twisted facts, about shadows and subterfuge, and the woman at its center is literally named Reality.
What makes it so strange, and so chilling, is that nobody wrote it at all.
The text of Reality, like the play it’s based on, is a verbatim replica, including redactions, of the FBI’s transcript of its interrogation of Air Force veteran and NSA translator Reality Winner on June 3, 2017. Playwright and director Tina Satter pulled the transcript onto the stage, and now she and co-screenwriter James Paul Dallas have moved it — to incredible effect — onto the screen, starring Sydney Sweeney as Winner and Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis as the agents interrogating her.
Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, and Marchánt Davis in Reality.
Reality is, quite literally, the kind of movie where people just talk the whole time. But that’s precisely why it works. The dialogue (unaltered, with a key exception, from the stage production and thus the FBI’s transcript) has that greatest of theatrical qualities: Nobody is ever saying quite what they mean, and you are riveted, trying to figure out what they’re thinking, the balance of power shifting back and forth. That it works so well on screen is a tremendous testimony to both Satter’s directorial chops and the actors’ performances.
The real Reality Winner, you may recall from the headlines, was accused and convicted of leaking an intelligence report regarding attempted Russian hacking of voter rolls during the 2016 election. “I wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything,” she told the agents. Later, she told the media that she felt the government was intentionally misleading its citizens about Russia’s attempts to upend the election, and so she printed out a file and mailed it to the Intercept, which promised its sources anonymity.
The government found out and arrived on her doorstep even before the Intercept published the reports. For the crime of “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet,” she was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison — the longest ever imposed for this crime. And, incredibly, she was repeatedly denied bail, ultimately remaining there for just shy of four years, even as Congress and other government officials spoke about what she’d revealed publicly. Though she was transferred to a transitional facility on June 2, 2021, Winner never saw the show about her when it opened on Broadway that October — because she was still under house arrest.
Translating play to screen results in subtle changes. When the show was still on stage, redactions in the transcripts were staged visually, the audience briefly plunged into blackness, a switch flipped that left you disoriented in the audience. As a medium, film has a little more to play with visually, so instead we see Sweeney’s image fuzz out and disappear, then reappear every time the redaction ends.
There’s also context-setting by way of news clips; at the start, we see Winner in her cubicle, Fox News coverage of FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before Congress blaring from a TV on the wall. (Later, she’ll tell the agents that she repeatedly asked for the TVs to be switched to anything other than Fox News — Al Jazeera, or just pictures of people’s pets — and it greatly upset her.) Sometimes events and dates about which the characters are speaking are cut together with the real Reality’s images or Instagram posts; once in a while we see a waveform of the tapes, or hear some static, or see the transcript being typed, a way to remind us that what we are watching is not fiction.
Or not exactly, anyhow.
Sydney Sweeney in Reality.
Most significantly, some of the redactions in the play have become un-redacted in the meantime. Many of them concerned the news outlet to which Winner leaked the document; the film eventually starts saying “the Intercept” out loud, and it’s a bit shocking at first. The reasoning seems clear. In November 2021, just after the Broadway show closed, Winner blasted the Intercept for its handling of the documents, the handling of which may have been responsible for her identification by the FBI (and which became a huge problem for the publication). Visually, Reality makes the case that the Intercept screwed up. Small wonder.
The question at the center of Reality is complex. When it was a play, it was an inquiry into Winner’s motives. Why would a young woman who wants, as she repeatedly tells the agents, to be deployed — to get out of her dead-end position as a Farsi translator and actually use her extensive language skills — do something she knows is illegal? What “pushed her over the edge,” as one of the agents asks?
But as a movie, with the attendant close-ups on faces the medium provides, the question grows. Emotional complexity, the manifold feelings her character is experiencing, and her well-trained attempts to stay cool, flash across Sweeney’s face. We start to really see what she’s thinking, and that leads to a bigger, more unnerving demonstration of the abject failure of the systems meant to protect us to do anything like that. Winner’s military record can’t save her. The fact that she speaks three languages spoken in the Middle East is called “impressive” many times by the agents, but each time the repetition is more loaded — it’s going to be used against her, we realize, to suggest her sympathies lie elsewhere (and so it was). The FBI isn’t on her side; they don’t even bother to read her Miranda rights. Well-worn gender dynamics suddenly become a factor, with Winner seemingly forced into joking about her cat being obese to pacify the men, sickeningly recognizable to women who’ve ever felt the need to play along for self-protection.
After her arrest, media reports — stitched into the film, lest the journalistic outlets conveniently forget — include people saying that, for instance, Winner is “a person who had taken a key interest in the Middle East, with suspicious motives,” that she “claimed to hate America,” that she was a “quintessential example of an inside threat.” Even the news outlet that was supposed to protect her, that provided such careful instructions for leakers who wish to remain anonymous, screwed it all up, and she paid the price.
Watching Reality marks the third time I’ve seen Satter’s adaptation of Winner’s interrogation. Each time, I’m left angry and unsettled. Like many Americans, especially white middle-class women, I was raised to believe that my government messes up sometimes but is essentially on my side. That we are the good guys, a government by the people, for the people, and that we don’t imprison people here just to make sure nobody ever dares to do something like making sure we’re told the truth about our own elections. We lionize the brave person who speaks out. When we get older, and wiser, and maybe more skeptical, that bedrock belief remains: that the truth will protect us.
To that, Reality pulls out a sledgehammer, and a host of institutions failing to fulfill their own lofty promises. Is anyone doing what they’re supposed to do? If the US government is willing to impose a harsh sentence on someone like Reality Winner, what are we supposed to think? What else is false? Is reality real?
Is this a room?
Reality premieres on HBO on May 29 at 10 pm ET and will stream on Max.