Sydney Sweeney stars as real-life American whistleblower Reality Winner in Tina Satter’s claustrophobic drama


Source: Berlin International Film Festival


Dir: Tina Satter. US. 2022. 83mins

Reality starts off feeling claustrophobic and grows even more so as it tells the true story of American whistleblower Reality Leigh Winner, who in 2017 leaked confidential information about the US government’s knowledge of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sydney Sweeney gives a deeply empathetic performance as the title character who spends the entirety of this film being interrogated by two male FBI agents, their dialogue taken from the transcripts of the actual exchange. Adapting her play Is This A Room, director and co-writer Tina Satter traps us in this small space with Winner, exploring the gender dynamics at play and the ways in which law enforcement officers slowly break down a suspect until they get what they want.

Watching Reality slowly succumb to these agents’ linguistic trickery, practically in real time, is a fascinating sociological exercise

Screening in Berlin’s Panorama section, this spare drama should garner notice because of its fact-based account, its narrative conceit and Sweeney’s rising stardom; the actress has recently appeared film like The Voyeurs and Night Teeth and has recieved Emmy nominations for her work on TV series Euphoria and The White Lotus. It also helps that viewers do not need to be familiar with the real case to be engrossed — in fact, the less one knows in terms of the film’s twists and turns, the better.

NSA contractor Reality Winner (Sweeney) arrives at her home on June 3, 2017, where she is approached by FBI agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchant Davis), who have a search warrant. Confused, she starts answering their questions, slowly realising that they suspect she has mishandled top-secret documents. With her phone confiscated and her house thoroughly searched, Reality pleads innocence but Garrick and Taylor keep pressing, convinced that she’s broken the law.

Satter’s feature directorial debut is a pared-down affair drawn entirely from FBI transcripts, the drama emerging from the unedited, unpolished conversation that took place that summer afternoon in 2017. Sweeney convincingly emphasises Reality’s ordinariness – though the woman is clearly brilliant. A master of Middle Eastern languages and professionally ambitious, the 25-year-old is unsettled by being confronted by authorities, an anxiety that Satter stresses through her film’s austere presentation. Nathan Micay’s tense score sometimes proves intrusive, but the plainspoken dialogue and drab locations only underline the chilling normalcy of the back-and-forth exchanges. She is an everywoman stuck in a quietly unnerving situation that feels surreal but is treated with utter realism.

At the same time, the film critiques the patriarchy by examining Reality’s unease around these men. Garrick and Taylor are both older and more physically imposing than she is, and Hamilton and Davis shine as the FBI agents who use a whole gamut of tactics to get her to talk – all the while claiming that they are just having a friendly chat. Hamilton’s benign smile belies Garrick’s endlessly calculating mind, while Davis adeptly suggests that Taylor isn’t quite as masterful as his partner at playing the proverbial “good cop.” 

These agents never threaten Reality, and yet the sense of a noose tightening around her neck grows stronger over the film’s slim runtime. That they are also slightly patronising is never lost on the audience and the screenplay, credited to Satter and James Paul Dallas, further accentuates the dread lurking within the transcript’s banal chitchat. The way Reality’s house starts filling up with unsmiling male agents creates an additional layer of menace, as do sporadic inserts of photos of the real Winner, along with her Instagram posts.

Sometimes, the transcript’s straightforwardness limits the dramatic possibilities, a problem Satter tries to circumvent by introducing visual flourishes that are not entirely successful. For the most part, however, watching Reality slowly succumb to these agents’ linguistic trickery, practically in real time, is a fascinating sociological exercise. As much as Garrick and Taylor pretend otherwise, they know she is the person who leaked documents — it is just a matter of getting her to confess. 

In this regard, Sweeney is especially strong at navigating Reality’s anguished journey from professed bewilderment to artful misdirection to tearful surrender. While Reality is on her side, condemning the US government for imprisoning her for five years after she revealed information the public needed to know, the film does not strain to suggest she is some extraordinary hero. Sweeney never lets you forget that Reality Leigh Winner was just a young woman who believed she needed to act, which is why the picture works so well: her ordinariness makes her seem all the more helpless, and also more relatable. She could be any of us.

Production companies: Seaview, 2 Sq Ft 

International sales: mk2 Films,

Producers: Noah Stahl, Brad Becker-Parton, Riva Marker, Greg Nobile

Screenplay: Tina Satter, James Paul Dallas, based on the play by Tina Satter

Cinematography: Paul Yee

Production design: Tommy Love

Editing: Jennifer Vecchiarello, Ron Dulin

Music: Nathan Micay

Main cast: Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, Marchant Davis, Benny Elledge