‘Reality’ Review: Sydney Sweeney Is Devastating as Reality Winner in Taut Thriller Shaped from FBI Transcript
Playwright Tina Satter’s Is This a Room is one of the more anomalous standouts of recent New York theater seasons. A 65-minute verbatim docudrama molded entirely out of FBI interrogation transcripts leading to the arrest of NSA whistle-blower Reality Winner, it was propelled by stellar reviews from a small downtown space to a leading Off Broadway house, before landing on Broadway for a short run in 2021 that consolidated its critical success even if it struggled commercially.
Showing the same uncanny ability to draw suspense out of a ripped-from-the-headlines situation with a known outcome, Satter has adapted the play as a feature that makes for a forceful gut punch of cinema vérité.
The Bottom Line
Truth is terrifying.
By swapping the stage production’s minimalist design for a scrupulously realistic representation of the house in Augusta, Georgia, that Winner was renting in 2017, Reality, as the film has been retitled, risks diminishing the uncomfortable convergence of the banal and the surreal that characterized the play. But if anything, that uneasiness is even more potent on the screen.
Satter shows unfaltering command of the medium for a first-time film director, notably in her penetrating use of the closeup, which makes the steadily exposed raw nerves of Sydney Sweeney’s remarkable performance in the title role all the more disturbing to witness.
The parts of the interrogation detailing the specific material Winner leaked to the media were redacted in the original transcript, which Satter conveys by switching for brief moments to a blank screen. But anyone who followed the news cycle knows that the 25-year-old former Air Force intelligence officer shared a document containing proof of Russian cyber interference in the 2016 election.
That fact anchors the drama in the years of the Trump administration, which went to great pains to keep that information out of the public sphere. It also suggests why Winner was given such an unusually harsh sentence of 5 years and 3 months jail time. While she was granted supervised release after four, it remains the heaviest sentence ever imposed under the espionage act against an American citizen for leaking classified documents.
Satter and co-writer James Paul Dallas open out the play judiciously for the screen, without in any way straying from its grounding in every word that was said, every bit of throat-clearing or nervous laughter, every awkward pause, on June 3, 2017. The most notable addition is a brief prologue, with Reality seen from behind in an office cubicle at a small firm under contract to the National Security Agency, where she worked as a translator. Fox News blasts from every TV monitor in the room, as details are revealed of Trump firing FBI director James Comey.
When Reality returns home from the grocery store three weeks later, she’s greeted in her driveway by two FBI officers, the relaxed, regular-guy Garrick (Josh Hamilton), dressed in Saturday-afternoon dad-wear, and his sterner, more taciturn partner. Taylor (Marchant Davis), whose buff physicality is immediately threatening. They exchange small talk before casually revealing that they have warrants to search her house, car and phone due to possible mishandling of classified documents. An unnamed third officer (Benny Elledge) arrives soon after, a hulking presence made more unsettling by his silence and his belittling stare.
There’s almost a comic element to their stiffness as they negotiate Reality’s concerns about her rescue dog, which “doesn’t like men,” eventually allowing her to bring the animal out into the yard and secure it on a leash. The same goes for their questions about her cat, with the team of search officers that descend regularly reporting that it’s either on or under the bed.
But the sly humor of the scene is undercut when the agents allow Reality to put her perishables away in the fridge and there’s barely space for her small frame with all the testosterone in the kitchen. The sense of dread mounts as other officers stretch crime-scene tape around the perimeter of her yard.
Hamilton is terrific at showing the forced bonhomie of Garrick’s practiced “good cop” routine; There’s a quasi-jokiness as he questions her about guns in the house — she has three, including a pink AR-15 — about her CrossFit training and yoga, and her fluency in Farsi, Dari and Pashto. He seems almost sympathetic when she confesses her frustration at being rejected for deployment to Afghanistan as a translator.
But in the same way that Sweeney’s body language dissolves from loose to rigid to broken, slowly crumbling inside as the seriousness of their visit becomes clear, Hamilton and the other actors gradually drop all pretense of this being a courtesy call designed to gather information. It’s obvious from the transcript that they already know pretty much everything they need to know, and the ways in which that knowledge is slowly disclosed makes for nail-biting drama.
Reality’s house is barely furnished, and the main part of the interrogation takes place in a shabby back room that’s completely empty. She repeatedly apologizes for the lack of a place to sit, as if they’re invited guests, but that allows Satter to play with the spatial and physical dynamics in crafty ways as the men loom around her.
One of the heartbreaking aspects of Sweeney’s layered performance is the subtle indications of Reality’s awareness that Garrick’s nice-guy act is mere professional role play. But she goes along with it because doing otherwise would mean dropping the last of her defenses.
Her interactions with the other agents are more unequivocally intimidated, causing her to shuffle nervously and at times collapse in on herself like a ragdoll. Satter rightly trusts her actors and her text to give dramatic life to Reality’s ordeal without technical distractions, the only embellishments being Nathan Micay’s prickly ambient score and occasional sound distortion to put us inside the protagonist’s head.
While the action unfolds over less than two hours in a semblance of real time, the spiral of tragedy feels full-bodied, no matter where you stand on Winner’s actions. It’s shattering when she finally breaks down, admitting that with all the misinformation constantly being circulated, she asked herself if a pernicious attack on American election integrity shouldn’t be made public. And what was she doing in that job if she had no power to expose such anti-democratic sabotage?
“Am I going to jail tonight?” she asks the agents, getting boiler-plate evasive answers before they lead her outside to be cuffed. A sickening feeling wells up in your stomach as you watch this young woman who made a questionable decision fret about who’s going to take care of her pets. In Sweeney’s expertly calibrated performance, a complete departure from her work on The White Lotus and EuphoriaReality often seems barely more than a teenager.
The film concludes with the blustery overkill of a Republican spokesperson spouting off to the press about Winner being “a quintessential example of an insider threat” while Tucker Carlson foams at the mouth in his trademark showboating outrage. It hits just the right insidious note to make this tense, impressively sustained thriller about power, surveillance and moral responsibility linger in your head with many questions. Top of that list is “What would I have done?”
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