REVIEW: Reality (2023, dir. Tina Satter)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 83 mins

UK Distributor: Vertigo Releasing

WHO’S IN REALITY?

Sydney Sweeney, Marchánt Davis, Josh Hamilton, Benny Elledge, John Way

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Tina Satter (director, writer), James Paul Dallas (writer), Brad Becker-Parton, Riva Marker, Greg Nobile and Noah Stahl (producers), Nathan Micay (composer), Paul Yee (cinematographer), Ron Dulin and Jennifer Vecchiarello (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

NSA employee Reality Winner (Sweeney) leaks intelligence about Russian election interference…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON REALITY?

Thanks to leaked government papers, we now have on public record concrete evidence that Russia interfered with the 2016 US election, influencing enough voters through misinformation campaigns and voting machine rigging to allow Donald Trump to win the Presidency. But oddly enough, nobody ever seems to talk about the person who actually leaked them in the first place, which is odd given that their name alone is worthy of at least some kind of bewildered discussion.  Reality Leigh Winner, the former US Air Force member turned NSA translator who smuggled the damning papers out of her office and mailed them to a news outlet, is talked about significantly less when it comes to government whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, but her story is still worth telling, as it now has in writer-director Tina Satter’s tense and impressively realised new micro-thriller.

However, Reality is far from your conventional biopic – in fact, it’s not really a biopic at all, but rather a dramatized re-enactment of transcribed audio recorded in June 2017 when the FBI showed up to interrogate and search the house of its titular subject. All of the dialogue in this film is repeated verbatim from the transcript, right down to overlapping speech and numerous non-sequiturs uttered by the main voices on the recording as well as some audio picked up from passers-by, and portrayed by actors like Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis as Reality Winner and interrogative FBI agents Taylor and Garrick respectively.

This kind of cinematic experiment has had variations of it done in the past, but few have managed to pull it off quite as well as Satter does here, and certainly not as claustrophobically. Adapting her own stage play Is This a Room with co-screenwriter James Paul Dallas, the first-time filmmaker impressively overcomes a common stage-to-screen flaw where, from its limited cast and singular location, you can blatantly tell that this material was originally meant to be performed in front of a live audience. Here, the contained nature makes complete sense, not just because the actual event it’s depicting takes place in one place and with a handful of people (at least, those picked up on the transcribed audio recording), but also because Satter frames the central interrogation as a compellingly cinematic battle of wits. Sydney Sweeney’s Reality is always on the defensive as she’s constantly being grilled by the inquisitive agents, who adapt tactical conversational methods to disarm their target and lull her into a false sense of security, and you can see her line of defence slowly crumble in real time when their methods begin to have an effect. There is a stronger thrill to watching this on the screen than there might be on the stage (having not seen the play, it’s hard for me to know for sure), since it has the advantage of being edited and paced more naturally, which makes the whole thing much more intense.

It’s certainly carried by the dialogue – it’d have to be, since the script for this movie is technically on public record – but director Satter also makes it visually engaging by inserting some clever cues which compliment the tricksy nature of the transcript. A fine example is whenever the dialogue reaches a point where the transcribed words have been redacted, prompting on-screen characters to suddenly glitch out of existence for a few seconds before reappearing and continuing the conversation as normal. Frequently, it will also cut back and forth between screenshots of the actual transcript right as the lines are being uttered by the actors, as well as photos and social media posts showing the real Reality Winner whenever she talks about holidays she went on or out-of-work activities like going to the gym. At one point, the cinematography even takes a turn into surreal territory, with heavily saturated shades of pink shining through the lens, and distorted close-ups as characters make some lewd comments while the main character is silently panicking.

The filmmaking is extremely sharp, and makes effective use of the contained environment wherein this particular story takes place, very rarely venturing beyond Reality’s small bungalow except for some stylistic visual flashbacks, while also playing around with certain camera angles, editing tricks, and especially the performances to emphasise the intensity. Sydney Sweeney, in what is without doubt her best performance to date, plays Reality with an air of unpredictability, whether it’s casually mentioning the weapons she keeps stashed away (among them a pink-plated AR-15 rifle) or worrying more about her pets than the FBI agents invading her privacy. You never know exactly what she’s thinking in the moment, as Sweeney masterfully retains a highly composed poker face at all times, even when the truth is eventually forced out of her, which adds a number of layers to the cinematic experience because you’re always fixated on her body language and choice of words to pick up on clues about her actual thought process: is she genuinely noble about her actions, or as sinister as right-wing media made her out to be? We don’t get any straightforward answers here, and that’s precisely how Sweeney intends it to be.

There’s also a sense of menace to the FBI presence as a whole, with main agents Taylor and Garrick finding and exploiting every avenue they can with Reality’s testimony in ways that undermine her authority in her own home. The film also plays with gender politics as much as it does with actual politics, with virtually all the FBI agents shown in the film as men who don’t hesitate to flex some of their internalised misogyny as they sift through and comment on her possessions, even treating her female animals with as much disdain as they would a human woman. Satter wisely keeps these observations as mere asides, putting most of the focus on Reality and her recorded confrontation instead, but they are drip-fed with enough intrigue to where these themes can be brought up without diverting much attention from the central topic.

This is honestly a fantastic piece of cinema, one that features bold and ambitious filmmaking techniques while also shedding light on a fascinating real-life story in uniquely experimental fashion. It does, however, make me feel a little sorry for the other Reality Winner project that’s currently in development, which is set to star Emilia Jones as Reality, because while it may turn out completely fine, there’s no way that it’s going to be as legitimately original as this one is.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Reality is a fantastically realized dramatization of the FBI transcript concerning government whistle-blower Reality Winner, which is compellingly told through some ambitious and highly experimental filmmaking by director and co-writer Tina Satter, and a captivating central performance by Sydney Sweeney, making it one of the year’s most original films.

Reality is showing in cinemas from Friday 2nd June 2023

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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