Reality is built from the transcript of an actual interrogation that took place on June 3, 2017 — one that two FBI agents subjected a 25-year-old military contractor named Reality Winner to in her home in Augusta, Georgia, shortly before her arrest. To be a regular viewer of movies and TV is to be bombarded with so many fictional versions of similar scenarios that watching a recreation of a real one feels disorienting. In some ways, the film has the convenient contours of a procedural drama, in that Winner doesn’t demand a lawyer the way you start to really wish she had, and that she ultimately confesses to having leaked a classified NSA report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections to a media outlet. But the conversation that slowly closes its jaws around Winner is also so banal, filled with small talk about CrossFit and rescue dogs in between intense questions about national security. You’re watching someone’s life get crushed, but like Winner herself, it takes a while to understand that because this encounter is its own kind of performance, one in which everyone tries, out of calculation or hope, to pretend what’s happening is not a big deal.
Reality is a knockout of a film debut from writer-director Tina Satter, but it was an experimental play first, one that Satter premiered off Broadway in 2019 and then, miraculously, on it in 2021. While the theater version, named Is This a Room after a background agent’s line, took place on a nearly bare stage, the film is saturated with the details of Winner’s work as a translator and her existence in a crummy rental house with a rescue dog and a cat. It demands intimacy with the whistleblower, who’s played by Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney in an unholy good performance that’s frequently captured in closeup, the better to capture the tiny flickers of expression that let us know when her Reality is lying, and when she realizes she’s been caught. Sweeney, bare-faced and in cutoffs, looks painfully young and plays Reality with a mixture of girlishness and career savvy about trying to navigate her way toward deployment. She’s an idealist, and one of the reasons she seems so unguarded with Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis), the two agents who question her, is that she genuinely doesn’t think what she did caused any harm. She still believes the state operates in service to the public, though she’s instead made an example of for her perceived disloyalty to the former on behalf of the latter.
Satter’s film could be classified as experimental, too, though its daring comes mainly in its rigorous fidelity to its source material. The transcript Satter found was declassified, but still contained parts that were redacted, including the name — The Intercept — of the outlet Winner sent the report to. In Reality, characters flicker out of existence in these missing moments, like a glitch in the system. Winner’s too-good-to-not-be-true first name becomes the key to unlocking what’s happening. “I felt hopeless, seeing that information be contested back and forth in the public domain,” she confesses, but what chance could she really have of creating a sense of shared truth with internal documents when even the official record of her own arrest, one that would be used against her, contains glaring gaps? “She doesn’t know what’s going on,” Taylor mutters to Garrick early on, but it feels more like she doesn’t want to accept it. One of the few times Reality leaves that Augusta house is at its start, when we see Reality at work in a cubicle, hunched over a desk while Fox News blares on screens adorning the wall. From that image alone, it’s easy to grasp why someone would attempt to break through the walls between the alternate universes our country has broken into, and might think they had the means to do it.
Because the transcript Satter uses is verbatim, the actors are left to recreate the hems and haws and fits and starts of unrehearsed speech. Hamilton, playing the mild-mannered, dadlike Garrick, stammers through sentences whose messiness gets rendered in type on screen, only to snap into precision when the time comes. As Taylor, Davis is muscular in an Under Armour polo, and gets startled into actions that play like ruptures in the casual approach the agents initially attempt. When Reality rushes to close the door before her cat gets out, Taylor breaks into a sprint to intercept her, and when he asks for her help getting access to her phone, he keeps pulling the device away when she tries to touch it — signals of the protocol the FBI is following. All of the stuff of Reality’s life, from her aims to be deployed to the pets she adores to the yoga class she was scheduled to teach to the groceries she puts in the fridge, are things that are already gone, though she doesn’t know it. Reality is filled with the sickening tension of a thriller, but it really plays like a tragedy, given that we already know what happened to its subject next.