You don’t really get to know Reality Winner until the back half of Sonia Kennebeck’s new film about the whistleblower “The United States Versus Reailty Winner,” though it respects the fact that you shouldn’t know about her at all. Ideally when Winner submitted a classified document that she had access to as an NSA subcontractor to the Intercept to draw attention to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, she would’ve been shielded by the outlet that eventually published the information and the Whistleblower Protection Act that’s federal law, but instead on June 3, 2017, the FBI showed up at her home in Augustus, Georgia, ready to make an arrest, as Kennebeck makes clear, well before asking her to start answering questions. With her culpability in the matter never in question – all that’s required for prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917 is that one with classified information passed it along to a civilian – it’s the system that Kennebeck scrutinizes when Winner became the center of attention rather than what she exposed.

To understand, Kennebeck seeks the counsel of other whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and John Kiriakou, but ultimately she’s become as much of an expert as anyone in regards to this kind of story following “National Bird,” which explored American drone operations in the Middle East, and “Enemies of the State,” in which a former member of the Air National Guard was targeted as a pedophile when his family suspected he had potentially damaging information about covert CIA missions. It hasn’t only been that Kennebeck has uncovered government operations that they’d rather not have the public see, but that she’s followed those who have served their country out of a sense of duty haven’t been served by the system they pledged to uphold.

Winner is a particularly egregious example when the film suggests that rather than seeking justice, prosecutors sought retribution, cherrypicking social media and communication with her sister to build a case against her, and it doesn’t appear it took much cajoling by the FBI for The Intercept to turn over the document that led directly to her arrest with its specific watermark. (When Kiriakou mentions that two of the reporters — Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito — who worked on the Winner story were also on the one that led to his own arrest, it’s a jaw-dropper.) When Winner is unavailable to speak for herself, Kennebeck spends time with her family – mother Billie and stepfather Gary – who can speak to the person they know, but
occupy a more critical role in reacting to a system they thought they knew, bewildered as they attempt to extract her from a lengthy prison sentence and the test of their strength becoming a reflection of their country that once was deeply invested in the rule of law but is now selective in how its applied.

“United States Versus Reality Winner” is certainly upsetting, but in Kennebeck’s typical fashion, primarily sobering as bits of humanity are allowed to break through the industrial presentation where grayness prevails in both the aesthetic and the personal testimony like a disruption in the machine. Taking the long view that Winner’s case is hardly an aberration, the director seems to inhabit the role of whistleblower as well, upending an ongoing narrative put forth by those outside the government that continues to see that true justice isn’t served.

“The United States Versus Reality Winner” will play at SXSW through March 20th.