Coming into the new HBO production Reality, I had virtually no idea what this tense little slice of reality was about, or that it was essentially a re-creation of one day in the life of 25-year-old former American intelligence specialist Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney, Euphoria, Black Lotus), who came home one afternoon and was confronted by FBI agents who questioned her in her sparsely furnished home in a Georgia suburb about the mishandling of classified information.
The film is based on the play Is This A Room, written and directed by Tina Satter, who makes her feature directorial debut with Reality, co-writing the screenplay with James Paul Dallas. But in truth, both the movie and play are based on the FBI transcript of Winner’s taped interrogation/conversation with agents on that fateful day. What we believe will be a simple case of guilt or innocence emerges as a complex, suspenseful, sometimes humorous and absolutely fascinating examination of what pushes someone to act against their best interests but in the best interests of their country. The film also serves as a raw, representative example of the vengeful overreach that typified the administration of a certain ex-president.
Sweeney as Winner comes across a very cooperative suspect, eager to help, but also worried that if she’s about to be arrested she should get in touch with someone who can take care of her dog and cat. In her initial first few minutes with Special Agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis), their conversation is light, friendly, about nothing in particular, as if nothing is really at stake. But as more agents arrive to search her home, car and person, the heat is turned up, and she begins to understand that something is deeply wrong. She denies she did anything wrong or took any documents out of her workplace, where she worked as a translator for the government, sometimes coming into contact with sensitive materials.
The most gripping parts of Reality have to do with the nature of whatever it was she did or didn’t print from her office’s secure servers and then pass along to what appears to be a news outlet of some sort. In the portions of the transcripts that are redacted for national security reasons, the audio and video of the speaker we’re watching simply vanish from the screen. It’s jarring, it feels like a glitch in the film, but it’s entirely intentional and makes the point quite clearly that some of this material is so new (the events of this story occurred in 2017 and concerned something that happened in 2016, if that tells you anything), it’s still potentially damaging to someone. But trust me when I say, the filmmakers find ways of filling in any gaps and answering any lingering questions. By the end of the film, all will be made alarmingly clear.
Little by little the FBI agents peel back the layers of Winner’s story. They seem to know the truth and the answers to most of the questions they ask her, but they still ask them, allowing her to dig her own grave until she not only has no choice but to jump in but also is forced to pull the dirt down over her. Sweeney’s performance is about as perfect as one could hope, portraying someone who is eagerly awaiting a full-time deployment by the military but also having done something some consider wrong despite her considering it part of her oath to protect her country.
Watching Reality is not like watching your typical film; it’s an experience, an exercise in patience that absolutely pays off. We’re given a brief update on what happened to Winner as a result of her actions, and it’s shocking, disheartening and achingly believable given the political landscape at the time. The film frequently cuts to photos of the real people in this film. At one point, an FBI agent takes Sweeney’s photo outside her house, and the resulting image we’re shown is that of the real Winner, truly adding to the real-life feel of the entire work. The direction is precise and confident, the performances are deceptively charming and straightforward, until they aren’t, and the entire experience is singular and unforgettable.
The film is now available on HBO and streaming on Max.
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