Facing the harsh truths of Reality

Director: Tina Satter Starring: Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, Marchánt Davis Running Time: 83 minutes

In 2017, then-25 year old NSA translator Reality Winner was approached at her home by the FBI. Her interrogation that day was to spiral into the the longest prison sentence ever imposed in the United States for the unauthorised release of government information to the media after Winner was found to have leaked intelligence about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The uncanny dynamics of that interrogation, the unsettled mindset of the United States during the Trump presidency and the uncertain grey areas of ethics and espionage all offer a complex morality play, and it’s one that director Tina Satter has found success in exploring. Bringing her work a step further to the big screen, Reality is a unique consideration of recent history. The film offers engaging performances under assured direction, but never quite expands beyond being an interesting formal exercise.

The rising star from Euphoria and The White Lotus, Sydney Sweeney takes on the part of Reality Winner, holding up a poker face as her life unravels in real time over the course of an awkward conversation in her Georgia home. Satter adapts her own 2019 stage play Is This a Room, as with that production, the screenplay is adapted directly from the FBI’s transcript of their interrogation of Winner. A kind of mumblecore politcal thriller unfurls; inside her house as its being searched, Sweeney’s Reality speaks with agents played by Josh Hamilton (Eighth Grade) and Marchánt Davis (The Day Shall Come), mindgames and machinations punctuated by many (many), uhms and ahs.

It’s easy to understand why the transcipt screenplay would perk actors interest, and Sweeney, Hamilton and Davis all sink their teeth into that material enthusiastically. Sweeney flits between awkward unease, disarming small talk, desperate deflection and wracked anxiety as Reality tries to talk around her interrogators, who are just as cagey about why they’re visiting her and how much they know. Its a marathon run of range, and a strong showcase of what Sweeney has to offer as a performer.

There are more subtle implications baked into the performance, in how her take on Winner makes herself small, amiable, cooperative with Hamilton and Davis, both impressive also. Hamilton was fantastic as the all-too-earnest dad in Eighth Grade, and he dialls that up here, a too friendly, disarmingly patronising presence. Davis looms imposingly in the background, but speaks with all the gravitas of a dull office worker; Satter is very deliberately tapping into the banality of intrigue. But that’s a dangerous game.

The stylistic flourishes in bringing this work from stage to screen backfire, showing the constraints of sticking to the transcript. Satter will occasionally cut from the actors to the recorded words being typed out on a page, or to real life photos from Winner’s social media. These pull the viewer away from the tense situation at hand, emotional efforts that overplay their hand and give the film the feel of a cheap true crime doc. Similarly, when characters speak on something that is redacted in the source material, the actors vanish from the screen altogether, returning as soon as they’re back on the record. It’s accompanied by a cheesy sound effect, and its ominous effect wears thin fast. The bag of tricks to make this visually interesting on screen turns up empty fast, we’re left with unlively blocking on a static set, something that looks like it would work better, well, in theatre.

Reality is functional as a nerve-wracking chamber play, a ticking time bomb of social niceities and professional courtesies dancing around its central subject. Winner knows why these agents have come to her home, and they know what she did, and we watch the screws twist as they offer water and swap small talk about dogs. Here, it works. As social commentary, it’s too constrained to offer much of anything in detail, since no one in the conversation at the time eloquently got into insightful political debate. For better and worse, the film sticks to the script. Watching talented performers throw themselves into run on sentences, go nowhere mumbling, coughs and airy, empty jokes makes for an interestingly unusual take on this kind of story, but it won’t work for everyone. Like its subject itself, the walls close in quickly on this ambitious, uneven effort.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Reality will be released in Irish cinemas 2nd June 2023.

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