illustration by Rachel Merrill

I didn’t exactly remember the story about Reality Winner. I recognized her uncanny name and its association with the word whistleblower. Whether I supported or condemned what she’d done had slipped through my memory. This lapse, an automatic deleting, made the story seem as though it may not have held much importance during the onslaught of news in 2017. Maybe the nation’s addled collective memory could stand to forget the answer to this particularly anxious American question: “What the hell happened here?” 

2023’s Reality provides a reminder of the answer. The film elucidates Winner’s singular story, not through analysis or heightened drama, but by winnowing events down to a single conversation, with all the potential for deceit that contains. It asks the audience to contend with the overlapping forces working to obfuscate the truth of what did happen.

Reality is directed by Tina Satter, based on her 2019 play Is This A Room. Satter is credited with writing the screenplay, along with James Paul Dallas, but they lift the dialogue from the real-life transcript of Winner’s interrogation. The context we’re not required to retrieve beforehand: NSA translator Reality Leigh Winner was arrested in the spring of 2017 for leaking a top-secret intelligence report. The report confirmed that Russian hackers had accessed U.S. voter registration rolls prior to the 2016 presidential election. As a result of her decision to share this information, Winner was convicted in violation of the Espionage Act. She is currently serving the longest prison sentence in U.S. history for the unauthorized release of government documents to the media. 

The film opens with Winner (Sydney Sweeney) at her cubicle beside two wall-mounted TV screens airing footage from Fox News. President Trump has just fired James Comey, the FBI director investigating Russia’s election interference.

Twenty-five days later, Winner’s story and the re-enactment of the FBI recording begins. Winner returns to her Augusta, Georgia home with groceries to find two federal agents, Wallace Taylor (Marchánt Davis) and Justin Garrick (Josh Hamilton) at her door. They introduce themselves with polite, measured care. More men emerge from unmarked vehicles. The agents have a search warrant. As men rifle through Winner’s personal belongings, Taylor and Garrick question her in an empty room. They prolong the small talk—about her career and her CrossFit training, with a particular, paranoid focus on her pets.

We understand early that no one is telling the full truth. The questioners and the questioned know this about one another, and, initially, playact that they don’t know that the other person knows. The audience is privy to this guarded exchange, watching as a tense, mutual bluff slips.

This slip becomes metaphysical as the audience gets flashes of real images: actual photos and social media posts from Reality Winner punctuate the narrative. Where biopics usually try to avoid contrasting an actor with the person being portrayed, here the image of Reality Winner serves as a reminder that she is not Sydney Sweeney. We’re watching a fiction, even if it sticks to the facts. Likewise, images of the actual pages of transcript and internal NSA articles appear onscreen, particularly when they contain black lines of redactions.

This elided content is transferred to the characters. Whenever someone speaks of redacted information, not only is the audio interrupted, but the image of the person disappears from the shot. Winner mentions a certain detail and, in a blip, she’s not standing there anymore, like a glitch in a simulation. We’ve been given proof of what hasn’t been shown, the presence of absence, the evidence of the real-world information we aren’t permitted to see or know anything about. The thought occurs that if we hapless civilians—including the filmmakers—were to see any of this classified intelligence, we might also land in legal trouble. 

At one point, Agent Taylor demands, “How do you open this?” holding out Reality’s phone. When she reaches for it, he yanks it back, snapping “Just hang on!” The agent presents his lack of knowledge and then immediately retracts the possibility of finding out.

“Is there anything else you want to tell us?” Garrick repeats, like a cop asking a speeding driver, Do you know how fast you were going? The punishment will come regardless.      

As the enforcers close in, Winner’s composure cracks. The agents keep their hands on their hips. Winner’s eyes well with tears. She slides down against the wall to sit on the floor. 

*

Our disbelief has been suspended, even if we know these actors from elsewhere. For instance, Josh Hamilton is usually the nice guy. He was the endearing neurotic college grad, Grover, in Kicking and Screaming (1995)—and then, a generation later, the attentive father in Eighth Grade (2018). In his turn as a federal agent, his affable demeanor becomes a professional disguise, a bureaucratic mask for intimidation and control.

Sydney Sweeney pulls off a more remarkable twist of type. In previous roles, she’s been the passionate, trusting girl in bed with devils. As Cassie in HBO’s Euphoria, she furiously declares: “I’m the one who takes risks! I’m the one who falls in love!” Sweeney also had a bit part among the Manson ensemble in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) and, in 2023, appeared in the music video for The Rolling Stones single Angry,” blonde hair and black leather sprawled over the back of a convertible down Sunset Strip.      

In Reality, Sweeney contains the big emotions but her same disruptive energy contends with a much stronger entity. Her character has risked a single act of defiance. She has disobeyed the present rules of the state—one that, despite everything, she still loves. Here, her transgression is not of romance or desire but of personal patriotic virtue; she has acted according to her own definition of love to country. Sweeney’s heroine has taken a surreptitious, but monumental, risk: one against an unfeeling system built and maintained, if not by devils, than, at least, by men.

The film might not be throwing an explicit counterpunch at the patriarchy, or pushing a message of female empowerment. But men and their trained gaze surround Reality Winner completely. Taylor and Garrick look at her unblinkingly,  searching for errors. The other agents in sunglasses stare back at her silently, chewing gum or chortling in slow-motion.

There are similarities in this uniform male stare to The Silence of the Lambs (1991). When federal agent Clarice Starling appears at the crime scene, she’s left in a room of local officers, all men, all with the same obtuse expression, sizing her up. Seen from Starling’s POV, we feel her sense of vulnerability, all the more stinging because she’s their rank superior. 

In Reality, the male agents scrutinize the cornered protagonist, or exchange knowing side-glances that Reality isn’t in on. These armed men could redact or delete from the recording whatever they might decide to do to Winner inside her own house. She is forced to obey their commands. As the pressure mounts, Winner searches their faces for signs of empathy. Finding none, she looks away, to the dog she may not see again, or to the ominous tree branches blowing outside her door. She realizes that, from this moment forward, her life will never be the same. 

The only other woman in Reality appears in the final scene. An unnamed female agent is brought in to pat down the now-apprehended perpetrator and attach handcuffs before Winner is taken into custody.

Despite what we know is coming, the arrest still manages to shock. Like the accused, the audience wants to keep the faith that good-natured small talk means benevolence and safety. But the spaces between have soured with a palpable sense of injustice.     

In a desperate plea, Winner asks about the information she leaked. “Why can’t this be public?” The agents don’t hazard a response. They know any exploration of more profound matters is outside the bounds of their own sharply-defined restrictions. They stare back again at Winner, only confirming that she has crossed hers.

Reality, existing outside these boundaries, permits an examination of how the authorities we live under came to draw such lines in the first place. The film underscores Winner’s question about the freedom of this information, which the audience can now articulate for themselves, if they haven’t already been wondering the entire time.

What Winner did was unauthorized, but does that make it wrong? Is the punishment fair? Is it naïve or idealistic to apply grander principles? Are we still in a place, or in a nation, where we’re allowed to ask? 

By daring to pose such questions, Satter’s re-enactment—the single-degree shift away from document to fiction—has taken its own brazen risk: it has inserted empathy into the story. Because of the viewers’s passive presence in this stark, intimate room, the narrative adaptation has reintroduced the discarded evidence of individual morality. Retelling this true story has invited the wild human possibility, otherwise redacted, of a greater good. 

*

The week I watched Reality, Vladimir Putin made a statement about the criminal cases against Donald Trump. Putin suggested that Trump’s current indictments showed the “rottenness” of U.S. politics. Several of these charges happened to be violations of the Espionage Act. Trump would continue to brag at new campaign rallies about firing James Comey, an implied catalyst from the opening shot of the film for Winner’s action.

In 2021, Reality Winner was released from prison and returned to her family home near Corpus Christi, Texas, where she remains on probation until November 2024. In addition to Satter’s film, a documentary titled Reality Winner (2023), directed by Sonia Kennebeck, told the inside story through extended interviews with Winner and her family. This careful non-fiction reveals more surprising details, personal and geopolitical, and chronicles the devastating ripple effects Winner still contends with. The documentary also features a brief moment in its final scenes of Winner’s family in the audience watching Satter’s play, the real people involved attempting to make sense of a dramatization of their own story. 

The date of Winner’s full freedom is a coincidence of political timing as uncanny as her name. As of this writing, it remains to be seen if a foreign adversary will again attempt to intervene in U.S. domestic affairs, and how that attempt will affect this new election. The year ahead may be as hard to predict as it may eventually be to remember. 

The likelihood is that a disproportionate amount of public attention will be directed to the alarm over the fire. Authorities may continue to punish the whistleblower rather than the arsonist. American citizens—too overwhelmed, too confused, with too many forces counting on their inability to absorb so much news—might stop asking why.

I conducted my own casual polling about Reality Winner. Very few of my well-informed friends could remember her story. “Oh yeah, what was that again?”was a frequent response, followed by a recollection of her label as whistleblower, then a general assessment about how the past few years have been surreal. I had a similar reaction when I heard about Satter’s film, a release that passed mostly under the radar. 

While the 2023 documentary offers personal details, Satter’s fiction sheds more light. It vaults Reality Winner, the exceptional allegory her name seems to be made for, to something like mythology, a tale we shouldn’t forget. Reality demands that this event not be dismissed or elided. It asks that we consider what has happened in a country most of us still love.

2024 will again test our ability to be honest with one another and ourselves. Reality urges us to make sense of what happened, and of what is very possibly happening again. In its own way, the film reminds us of the fact that we still have room, and the free enduring good fortune, to think again.