With a deliberate pace, Sonia Kennebeck’s United States vs. Reality Winner quietly directs its outrage towards the injustice faced by 25-year-old whistle blower Reality Leigh Winner and a system that failed her. Held up as a poster girl for the deep state by Trump and the prosecution, she was ultimately betrayed by the sloppy work by journalists at The Incept who carelessly provided a document with identifiable information for confirmation.
Following the events that led up to Winner’s arrest––including recordings of conversations between Winner and agents who stopped by for a friendly chat, along with the efforts of her loving family to advocate on her behalf–– Kennebeck again has crafted an often riveting exploration of the state of national security. What emerges is a sympathetic personal portrait of Winner, who shares classified information on Russian interference (a document later declassified), as told through the perspective of mother Billie Winner-Davis and sister Brittany, along with national security reporters and whistleblowers including Edward Snowden.
The film walks a delicate line between educating viewers about Winner’s case while keeping its outrage at an arm’s length with the hopes Winner will be granted clemency at a later date. Her lawyers and family were essentially permitted from disclosing certain kinds of information in an effort to highlight her case in the court of public opinion while Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer were able to brag about “the leaker” they were bringing to justice. As sister Brittany points out, prosecutor Bobby Christine used the self-deprecating humor of Reality’s expansive journals to make her sound like an anarchist terrorist mastermind rather than someone who occasionally had a series of frustrating days.
Like the subjects of Kennebeck’s National Bird, Winner is an Air Force veteran who participated in the drone program as a cryptologic linguist, later confiding to her late father the effects she felt while participating in a program that from afar carried out targeted assassinations with collateral damage. For a young idealist, one who turned down a full scholarship to serve her country, the immense pressure she must have felt to do the right thing is palpable in this sympathetic portrait.
The cruel irony is two-fold: the document she provided on Russian interference in the election soon became declassified and the Espionage Act of 1917, which she had been tried under, focuses on collaboration with a foreign power, not careless journalists Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito. They declined not to participate in the film but editor-in-chief Betsy Reed does along with Thomas Drake, a whistleblower who previously served two years in jail in a similar incident involving the same reporters.
Kennebeck’s picture is both deep-sourced and somewhat muted in its criticism of the NSA and prosecutors, who are seeking a win by any means necessary, including one-sided character assassinations. The film provides proper context about the NSA in an interview with Edward Snowden who applauds Winner while providing an overview of changes that had occurred post-9/11 within the intelligence community. The film is most successful at focusing on the life Winner-Davis and her husband are creating for Reality once she finishes her 63-month prison term. The film appears to lack the insider access, likely by choice as seen in Kennebeck’s previous films, and walks the same difficult tight rope that Reality Winner walked when she calls into CBS This Morning, careful to not criticize a system that’ has made an example out of her to simply score political points.
United States vs. Reality Winner premiered at SXSW.