This taut chamber piece about NSA whistleblower Reality Winner (yes, that’s her real name) is based on the FBI’s account of her interrogation one June day in 2017. “Based on” doesn’t quite capture Reality’s exhaustive commitment to the facts, though, because this movie is essentially a dramatic reading of a verbatim transcript of the FBI agents’ recording that day. The only time it breaks with reality is when it reaches a redacted portion of the transcript, at which point characters glitch out of view, leaving us staring into the blank set around them. Otherwise, every cough, false start, and even every off-topic remark is recreated with exacting precision here, lending the film a paradoxically stilted, slightly stagy air. But rather than pull you out of the proceedings, Reality’s palpable artificiality only immerses us into the uneasy tension and surreality that its anxious protagonist must have been feeling that day.
That anxiety is contagious, thanks to the movie’s clinical style and central performance. The camerawork is largely unblinking, moving in uncomfortably close on Reality (Sydney Sweeney) as two FBI agents (Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) subject her to their bizarre hot-cold interrogation, which ranges from seemingly friendly inquiries about her dog to jugular-aimed questions about the allegations against her. Sweeney shoulders all this pressure remarkably well, deftly keeping us as much in the dark as Winner tried to keep the FBI in — which makes not knowing the real story a benefit, rather than a barrier, to watching Reality.
Outside of Sweeney’s commanding performance, Reality feels somewhat limited by its absolute loyalty to the FBI’s transcript, though. Much of the film’s 83-minute runtime is dedicated to recreating the text, which leaves only a few minutes at the end for it to express its own point of view on Winner’s actions. Though these scant moments make for a compelling reframing of the charges against Winner, they feel overshadowed by and separate from the movie’s rigorous devotion to the transcript, which ultimately means Reality can’t quite transcend its status as merely an interesting filmmaking curio.
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Actor: Allan Anthony Smith, Benny Elledge, Bill Maher, John Way, Josh Hamilton, Marchánt Davis, Sydney Sweeney, Tucker Carlson
Director: Tina Satter