It’s strangely appropriate that the metaphorical implications of learning Reality Winner’s house in Augusta, Georgia being located on a street corner are more immediately obvious than the more practical peril that she finds herself in during an FBI raid in “Reality.” Clearly, there’s nowhere to go for the whistleblower who was sentenced to five years in prison for taking classified documents from her work at an NSA subcontractor after she’s approached by a pair of agents with a search warrant, but the growing number of black SUVs in the background occupy the same space in her mind as the walls are clearly closing in. Agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchant Davis) are pleasant enough as they approach Winner (Sydney Sweeney) for her acquiescence, but all involved would seem to know that the outcome of the search is predetermined, playing out a game in which the pieces still need to be arranged and moved around and it’s a feeling of inevitability that Tina Satter uses to fascinating and compelling ends in her feature debut.
An adaptation of Satter’s stage play that remarkably never feels stilted as a result of its theatrical roots or the fact that it is taken verbatim from a transcript of the true-life interrogation and arrest, “Reality” seems as if it’s holding onto this authenticity at first like it’s a burden, breaking narrative form to remind that the dialogue exchanged between Winner and the FBI is entirely real with clips of sound files and typed transcripts infiltrating the narrative. But the film ingeniously subverts this weight so it sits in the mind in a different way when the ever-mounting documentation starts appearing less as evidence of how a case was built against Winner than constructing one for why she did it when all the data collection reeks of overreach and looks to reinforce a powerful system of government where the sheer, grotesque volume of information it has is part of its impenetrability, deployed at will to justify its own narrative.
When the conclusion isn’t in doubt, “Reality” raises a more interesting question in the chit chat between Winner and the agents who clearly have very different ideas about the country they serve. In spite of their folksy patina, Garrick and Taylor are single-minded in their pursuit of a confession, incurious about the world around them if it doesn’t have anything to do with fulfilling the directive at hand and not looking to question the ultimate purpose it serves while Winner sees her citizenship as a gateway to explore other cultures, taking full advantage of the freedom to go on weekend trip to Belize or learn Arabic and considers that to be the liberty she’s devoted herself to fight for.
Any personal motivation for Winner to leak the documents is elegantly handled by Satter and co-writer James Paul Dallas, who find a window of time where Garrick and Winner make small talk about her frustrations about killing time in Augusta when her main desire was to be deployed to Afghanistan where she could serve as a Pashto interpreter, and “Reality” subtly conveys the power dynamics at work throughout, particularly in cinematographer Paul Yee’s striking compositions, with one specific shot of Winner crowded out of a frame by the phalanx of FBI agents in her house as she tries to get her groceries in the fridge an early contender for the most striking compositions of the year.
The eye has a finding its way to Sweeney no matter where she is on screen, with the “Euphoria” star giving a magnetic turn as Winner, hinting at the instances where something differs from how she surely had this comeuppance play out in her head or worrying that forgetting something will only add to the punishment forthcoming, all the while hanging onto the free-spirited je ne sais quoi that makes her such a fascinating character beyond her circumstances. In sticking to the facts of what actually happened, “Reality” proves to be unexpectedly revealing, as much about the person as the country she’s a citizen of.
“Reality” will screen at Berlinale on February 19th at 12:30 pm at the Cubix 9, February 20th at 9:45 pm at the Cineplex Titania, February 21st at 9:45 pm at Zoo Palast 3, 4 and 5 and February 26th at 6:30 pm at Cubix 9.