Having premiered at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, Tina Satter's debut film faithfully re-enacts the real-life FBI interrogation transcript of American intelligence leaker Reality Winner. It's a minimalist triumph.
Adapted from her play ‘Is This A Room’, Tina Satter’s Reality is a bone-rattling snapshot of recent US history in the shape of a tense chamber piece.
Like in her play, the first-time feature director uses unedited original dialogue from FBI recordings and transcripts to re-enact the arrest of 25-year-old NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Reality Winner (played to perfection by Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney). The unbelievably named former Air Force linguist printed out classified documents about Russian interference in the 2016 US election and mailed it to the newsroom of The Intercept.
She “wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything,” she said, but was arrested in 2017 when FBI agents paid her a visit at her home in Georgia. Winner was given the longest prison sentence ever imposed for an unauthorized release of government information to the media: five years and three months in federal prison.
Set almost entirely in the single location of Winner’s home for the taut 82-minute runtime, the inherent setting claustrophobia is made all the more visceral by the fact the entirety of the dialogue is verbatim from real-life transcripts. This means that Reality avoids any kind of fact smudging or artistic fabrication, giving the film a docu-drama feel that feels both troubling and relatable.
The interactions between Winner and the FBI agents (Marchánt Davis and Josh Hamilton) crescendo in intensity, and certain stylistic choices, including the use of visual glitches and literal on-screen redaction which replaces “bleeps” for very eerie and sudden frame disappearances when Winner says something that has been redacted from the original transcript, work wonders. These formal choices could have been gimmicky but only heighten the themes of narrative truth and how terrifying dread can lurk behind the mundane.
Both Davis and Hamilton are excellent as the two disarmingly amiable FBI agents interrogating Reality, but like the title suggests, it’s Sweeney who steals the show in this three-hander. The way she subtly portrays her defences progressively crumble through micro-expressions and chips away at her initially accommodating façade by allowing small flashes of panic to colour her facial expressions is fantastic.
Reality wasn’t an obviously cinematic story, but Satter has managed to make it a gripping minimalist thriller that plays out like Aesop’s fable of the (bald) eagle wounded by an arrow. The director here uses the US government’s own documents to expose its injustices and failings; by crafting such a stomach-knotting huis-clos, Satter highlights that while this re-enactment may be about the “alternative facts” politics under Trump and the mechanisms of state power which descend upon the individual, it’s also about the way ordinary citizens are pushed to extreme acts under extraordinary circumstances. Specifically when truth is at stake.
And despite recent heartening news that Trump is being prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act and charged with illegal retention of classified documents, Reality reminds us of an unbalance in reality: nine times out of 10, it’s the same privileged few that still manage to get away with it.
'Reality' is out now on HBO and in selected cinemas.