Ever since The Big Short, Adam McKay’s winking and sardonic explainer about the 2008 financial crisis, a redundant cottage industry of similar-minded criminal biopics has tried to capitalize on the director’s witty and righteous formula. Inserting self-aware narration and commentary at the top of—and throughout—a movie isn’t exactly a new technique. It’s just that, at this point, freeze frames and slow motion sequences of exclamatory moments, coupled with “You’re probably wondering how I got here” preambles feel like uninspired choices. But that’s how Winner, the second movie in the last year to document NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, chooses to begin this unexpectedly bouncy dramedy—with its protagonist in handcuffs and a lighthearted “let me explain” attitude. 

It’s a jarring change in tone if you’ve seen Reality, last year’s lean and mean Max offering featuring Sydney Sweeney in one of her best roles to date. Tina Sattler’s movie spends the length of its runtime in its protagonist’s Augusta, Georgia, home, as two FBI agents question her actions as an intelligence contractor, using transcripts from the actual shakedown. It’s tense and taut and immerses you into the corner in which she’s been put. Winner (her name is apparently too good not to use for a title), directed by Susanna Fogel with a script from Kerry Howley, takes a different tact altogether, providing a loose chronological account of its unfiltered, sarcastic protagonist that’s hard to square with Reality’s eventual grave decision to leak classified information. It’s the tricky tightrope of this first-person narrative trope. When it wants to be serious, it’s hard to take it seriously. 

At least on paper, the structural conceit makes sense. Raised in Texas by Billie (Connie Britton) and Ron ( Zach Galifanakis), Reality (Emilia Jones) doesn’t have much of a filter and boldly displays her activism, like in an early scene in which she sets a bunch of puppies free from her local mall’s pet shop. The subversive, anti-authoritarian mindset is instilled into her by her father, a humanities professor who encourages her to learn Farsi, Dari, and Pashto languages in the aftermath of 9/11. Despite her  distrust in the government’s Middle Eastern motives (she can’t help but call out the Iraq War in her high school class and embarrass a local recruiter), Reality’s diverse and unlikely tongue makes her a prime recruiting target, and she reluctantly joins the Air Force under the promise she will be helping displaced communities overseas. But after a few years working in a translation boiler room, scoping out bomb threats that lead to drone strikes that keep her stateside, she opts—as many do—to try the private sector and make some real money doing the same thing. 

The core tensions in Reality’s work are the impersonal translations that result in mass casualties to “save American lives” and her own moral compass that would rather be on the ground working with vulnerable people. Fogel depicts this internal battle through Reality’s intense gym workouts, in which treadmill goals become justifications for her still being “a good person.” It’s a slighter, broader way to show inner conflict than relying on Jones as an actor. The movie leans on her better through Reality’s more domestic affairs—interactions with her engaged sister (Kathryn Newton), coping with her parents’ separation, and her selfishness in a relationship she develops with a bartender—that supply more background into her motivations. There’s nothing particularly special in these sections; everything has a familiar editorial pace and predictable emotional beat in the way Howley dispenses information. The best moments take place between Reality and Ron, whose heart condition and pain-killing addiction tests their relationship, which Jones and Galiafanakis support with a warm and witty rapport. 

The FBI raid on her home, which comes after Reality leaks documents about Russia’s election hacking that Donald Trump and the government denied, plays as an abbreviated footnote. You don’t feel the weight and anxiety of her decision to smuggle out proof. You also don’t get to scoff at the relative unimportance of her courageousness (or treason) when she explains the way everyone forgot about her story once Russia was found to not have changed any votes. Winner wants to make you upset at the obscenely harsh way—five years in prison, the longest sentence handed to someone who gave up unauthorized information to a media entity— that this regular translator was treated. But it’s hard to feel righteous indignation from this story. Even at its most effective dramatic moments, when you should be clenching your fists, you only end up shrugging. 

Winner premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: C

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