The Movie Waffler New to VOD - REALITY | The Movie Waffler


Reenactment of the FBI's interrogation of whistleblower Reality Winner.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Tina Satter

Starring: Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, Marchánt Davis

Reality poster

When questioned about the motivations for his particular brand of thriller filmmaking, Alfred Hitchcock would routinely trot out his stock anecdote about how his father arranged for him to spend a few minutes locked in a police cell as a young boy. Hitchcock claims the experience, intended by his father to scare him into good behaviour, gave him a lifelong fear of authority, which he repeatedly channelled into his work throughout his career. You probably don't need your parents to have subjected you to such an extreme life lesson to develop a fear or distrust of authorities today; simply reading the news is enough to make you question the motivations of the powers-that-be and your chances of finding yourself on the wrong end of the law. At time of writing, the UK government has introduced new laws aimed at stamping out dissent in the form of protest, the sort of draconian measures the western world likes to frown upon when it comes to the likes of Russia, Iran or China. There's an increasing feeling that law enforcement agencies no longer exist to protect and serve the public, but to protect and serve the authorities. Simply stressing an opinion is now enough to have you interrogated in many parts of the so-called democratic west.

Reality review

Adapting her play 'Is This a Room' as her feature directorial debut reality, Tina Satter takes our fear of authority figures and strips it down to its basics. It features a young woman being questioned by a pair of FBI agents, and it's so tense and uncomfortable you can feel your skin crawling as the interrogated party is gradually broken down by a pair of men whose job is to disarm people into confessing their "crimes." It would be called a brilliant piece of writing, except all of the film's dialogue is taken directly from an FBI transcript of a real life interrogation. Sometimes reality really is more dramatic than fiction.

Ironically, the title actually refers to its protagonist, Reality Winner (yes, that is her real name), an NSA translator who found herself confronted by a pair of FBI agents at her home on June 3rd, 2017. A few weeks earlier Winner had printed out a confidential NSA report detailing how Russian hackers had employed an email phishing scam in an attempt to gain information on local election officials in the US. She posted the report to the online news website The Intercept, but her actions were discovered before the site could publish the story, leading to her arrest and subsequent imprisonment in 2018.

Reality review

Winner is played here by Sydney Sweeney, stripped of her usual glamorous trappings but not in that over the top way attractive actresses adopt when they feel it's time to be considered worthy of awards (no fake nose here). The drama plays out in something close to real time, and Satter has made the wise choice not to skip to the interrogation itself but to allow us to soak up the awkwardness of agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis) making small talk with Winner as they wait for fellow agents to clear her house (Winner admits to possessing a small arsenal of weapons, including the controversial AR-15 assault rifle) and secure her dog and cat. Far from the men in black stereotype of FBI agents we're accustomed to in fiction, Garrick and Taylor are dressed like unhip dads at a neighbourhood barbecue. There's no good cop, bad cop routine; rather both men present an affable front, placing a decidedly neoliberal boot on Winner's throat. They talk about their own pets and commend Winner on her various skills, from her fluency in Middle Eastern languages to her bench pressing. Whenever Winner makes a witty comment (as we so often do when we find ourselves in very serious situations), it disarms her accusers, who react like automatons confronted with something they haven't been programmed to react to.

Moving to an empty back room in Winner's home, things begin to get more sinister. The sparsity of the location calls to mind interrogation chambers in Guantanamo, and there's immediately something off about two burly men interrogating a young woman with no female law enforcement representatives present. Garrick takes the lead, assuring Winner that she's speaking on a voluntary basis, and constantly asking if she would like some water or if she needs to use the bathroom. However, he never advises Winner that she may wish to have a lawyer present.

Reality review

Sweeney is excellent in what are essentially dual roles: that of Winner and of the role of wide-eyed innocent Winner adopts before she's backed into a corner and forced to confess. At one point the agents remark to one another that she doesn't seem to understand why they're here, so good is Winner at playing dumb. Hamilton is intensely creepy as the smooth-talking Garrick, presenting an avuncular front but picking up on every little detail of Winner's testimony in order to entrap her further. Throughout the interrogation, Garrick claims he empathises with Winner's motivations, and you can't help but surmise he may well be telling the truth. He probably has no love of the regime he currently finds himself working under, but to him it's simply a job. Regardless of which side of the political fence you're chained to, anyone who believes in democracy and the public's right to know as much as the people they vote into power when it comes to important issues will empathise with Winner's actions, naïve though they might have been in execution. That men like Garrick are happy to sit on the political fence and be a tool of oppression is the film's most disturbing takeaway.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2023 movie reviews