There was a time when leaked classified documents were reserved for Hollywood tales of cloak and dagger; carefully guarded briefcases held by mysterious fedora-wearing figures meeting in shadowy back alleys often ending with concealed guns aggressively being pointed in someone’s direction. Somewhere along the way that changed, or probably more accurately it was never the case. Over the last couple of decades the image of a leaker has shifted as reports of such activities have become a much more frequent fixture of the daily news cycle.
There are the high profile instances like Edward Snowden, an intelligence computer consultant who was at the center of a 2013 National Security Agency after revealing questionable global surveillance measures. His story continues today as he remains on the lam hiding somewhere in Russia. More recently a major leak was exposed, this time by a low level 20-something member of the Air National Guard who seems to have committed the crime so he could brag to his online friends.
HBO’s original film Reality tells yet another story that strips away Hollywood espionage veneer to deliver a raw, sparse story of an average woman who is under the microscope after taking matters into her own hands. This begins with the film’s star, Sydney Sweeney who is known for more glamorous roles in series like Euphoria and The White Lotus. Sweeney plays the central character, a real life National Security Agency intelligence specialist, Reality Winner. To do so, the actress trades in the high end outfits and glamorous locales for a more relatable jean shorts blouse and modest home in the suburbs of Augusta, Georgia.
Writer-director Tina Satter keeps the approach stripped down as she adapts her broadway stage – the scope narrow and sparse. There are no guns, dark alleys, or chases but the tension is constant and builds to unnerving levels from the minute Reality pulls up to her house ready to unpack groceries only to be greeted by a pair of plain clothed FBI agents Taylor (Marchant Davis) and Garrick (Josh Hamilton). Besides an opening scene – a static camera shot -which establishes the setting both in time and the political climate, the rest of the film takes place in or on the property around Reality home.
Based on the actual transcript from the arrest of Winner, it possesses an almost surreal documentary feel for much of its brief runtime. While this is an edited down version of the events, every line, word for word is pulled straight from the tapes recorded on that day. Awkward pauses, stammers, misdelivered sentences which would typically be left on the editing room floor remain present giving the events ultra realism. One nice touch was including some of the actual audio clips overlaid on screen while redacting words and phrases, keeping the viewer just outside of being in the know.
The conversation often is anything but focused on the accused crime, dipping into the mundane, as Reality is seemingly more focussed on the well-being of her pets than the fact that she is being gingerly interrogated by two FBI agents. Harmless, light banter and small talk is exchanged which would make it easy for viewers to let their guard down, but the claustrophobic cinematography of Paul Yee, framing Sweeney in tight, uncomfortable closeups, combined with Nathan Micay’s anxiety-tapping score consistently remind us this is no neighborly get together. Micay and Yee’s work ups the pressure of the situation at hand to near unbearable levels.
Sweeney’s performance is taut but no less impressive than her other work. This is obviously much less showy than her work on Euphoria which can be just about as wild as it gets. As the noose gets tighter Sweeney’s demeanor subtly shifts and through we are given a front row seat to witness her most minimalist and controlled performance to date. Everyone involved knows why the agents are there, she is guilty. Sweeney keeps that concealed behind a wall, slowly showing cracks as the agents chip away at her story.
Satter paints the picture of a woman under pressure, reserving judgment for Winner’s actions to the viewers. Instead of being a political witch hunt the film is almost apolitical. Besides the opening shot which has footage of former FBI footage James Comey and archive footage discussing Winner’s case post arrest, Satter does not tip her hand of her political leanings. We are left focusing on the woman, not the typical tug of war between the left and right.
No matter where you stand on Winner’s actions, anyone who has ever been caught with their hand in the cookies can understand being in her shoes. While on the surface she remains calm you can almost hear her praying for that one magic answer which if given will lead to the agents to leave. Like the hidden documents themselves, the magic of Sweeney’s performance is what is going on beneath the surface.
While it can all feel one-note as a whole it is never boring. For those who do not know the Reality story and come in blind will probably have a more heightened experience wondering if she did or didn’t do it – are the agents barking up the wrong tree. Reality is not for everyone and does not try to be. Those who appreciate what Satter and Sweeney are doing here will be relieved when it is over as the underlying tension drops to normal levels. At the same time I can certainly see other viewers wondering what the fuss is about.
Reality is currently streaming on Max.
Watch my interview with Satter and Sweeney about Reality, below.