A good conceit can go a long way. In 2017, a former U.S. Air Force member-turned-NSA translator named Reality Winner leaked a document to The Intercept exposing Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On June 3rd of that year, two FBI agents appeared on her lawn and began questioning her. She didn’t ask for a lawyer and, after roughly 90 minutes, was arrested. In Reality, directed by Tina Satter from her own acclaimed play Is This a Room, that transcript is performed to the letter. Then a curious kind of alchemy occurs: as the actors laser-in on the transcript’s every detail, Satter’s fascinating film moves away from the rhythms of political thriller and into the eerie realm of the uncanny.
The neatest title at last year’s Berlin Film Festival was Cyril Sachaubin’s Unrest. If there was an award for such things, this year’s would go to Reality––its meanings seem to expand, overlap, and vanish. The first is Winner’s name, given at birth by her father. On paper it seems so improbable, so heavy with nominative determinism that even the least-discerning sci-fi editor would turn their nose up at it. Next is our experience of reality itself: how information can either blur or sharpen it, whether that be the muggy fog of slippery deceits online or the truths that are withheld by those in power.
Satter’s film is also remarkable for the economy with which it sows those ideas (I’d love to hear what Steven Soderbergh would say about it). Reality doesn’t have a script in any conventional sense. There is no space for preaching, only the words spoken or not spoken on that day and at that time. Aside from small, dialogue-free flashbacks and a late flurry of news footage, Satter’s film never leaves Winner’s house and garden––most of it takes place in a single room. The actors pause when those being recorded paused. Verbatim, they repeat their “hmms” and “ahs.” People say things like “late May, early April” instead of the other way around. Satter often cuts (perhaps a bit too often) to the transcript itself to remind us. The actors essentially talk in the awkward ways that people do in real life.
In the midst of all this is Sydney Sweeney, who carries the film as Winner. Her performance is stressed but never brittle and thrillingly convincing––the film is indebted to her. She’s quite literally flanked by Marchánt Davis as agent Taylor (a flexing bad cop) and Josh Hamilton as agent Garrick (the normcore good cop). Both are solid in their roles, but it is Sweeney’s presence that anchors everything––appearing in almost every shot and doing most of the talking. It’s tempting to think of this as another glitzy star––the new face of Armani Beauty no less––doing their low-budget indie thing; but hasn’t Sweeney been doing quality work for years? A more useful comparison, perhaps, might be Aubrey Plaza, her fellow White Lotus alum, who was exceptional in Emily the Criminal last year, another film about a law-abiding American woman at the end of her rope. Reality is lower-key by design––one or two locations, next-to-no jazzing-up of the drama––but they share a common thread; and it doesn’t go unnoticed that Sweeney’s Winner is the only woman we see. As she commits fully to the film’s conceit, Satter can only hint that the FBI’s tactics were manipulative and misogynistic, if not outright harassment.
Politically, Satter subtly positions the events of those two hours as the source of a river: Winner’s small but cataclysmic action would push those in the media and watching at home to reconsider certain things, just as it left both sides more entrenched than ever. Satter’s film is also entranced with the idea that those global reverberations came from the actions of a young woman that many on the right would have once considered a patriot. Winner was planning to rejoin the Air Force. She owned a pink AR-15 which she liked to pose with on Instagram––Satter includes some of her social posts here, too. In the transcript, even the FBI officers seem to want to defend her, almost perplexed at their situation. (On more than one occasion, Winner explicitly distances herself from Edward Snowden.) In a striking debut, Satter has produced a captivating, subtly experimental film that offers no shortage of ideas to chew on.
Reality premiered at the 2023 Berlinale.