Sunday 1 October 2023

Sydney Film Festival, The Current Cinema and Streaming on various platforms - Rod Bishop recommends REALITY (Tina Satter, USA, 2023)

Already acclaimed at film festivals, including Berlin, Sydney and New Zealand, this always fascinating low-key drama is having a theatrical release around Australia and is available on a variety of streaming platforms.

It opens one Saturday in June 2017, when Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney) pulls into the driveway of her house in Augusta, Georgia after visiting a local supermarket. She is suddenly startled by a very loud knock on her driver’s window. 

FBI agent Justin C. Garrick (Josh Hamilton) is knocking, and from this moment on, all of the dialogue in the 82-minute Reality comes from an actual word-for-word transcription of Winner’s FBI interrogation on that day. 

She is accused of releasing a classified intelligence document to The Intercept, a New York whistleblower publication.

Agent Garrick’s summoning knock turns out to be an out-of-character moment as he, and fellow Agent R. Wallace Taylor (March├ínt Davis), start to treat Winner with kid gloves. They worry about her cat and dog; about whether she’s thirsty; about the perishables in her grocery shopping; and about the sparse furniture in her down-at-heel house. Agents swarm around them seemingly photographing everything, pouring through books and documents and bagging her computer and mobile phone.

Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis, Reality

Winner, Garrick and Taylor move into a spare room at the back of the house where there is no furniture and they are forced to stand through the entire interrogation.

The FBI transcript makes it clear the agents believe Winner when she says “I wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything” and they act as though they couldn’t be more sympathetic to her plight. It’s just their momentary hard stares every time she lies that gives away their professional acumen.

Reality Winner, after all, has runs on the board, although only some of this is revealed in the transcript. She’s an Air Force veteran with the 94th Intelligence Squadron; she has top level security clearance; she speaks Farsi, Pashto and Dari; she was based in Maryland translating intercepted conversations during the Afghan war; and she has received the Airforce Commendation Medal for “aiding in 650 enemy captures, 600 enemy killed in action and identifying 900 high value targets”.

Hoping to be deployed to Afghanistan, Winner was working for the NSA (National Security Agency) translating Farsi documents on Iran’s aerospace program when she went outside her brief, downloading and printing a classified document about Russian hacking of voter registration rolls in the 2016 Presidential election. Her pantyhose proved handy for smuggling it past security.

Apart from the Russian hacking of the rolls, the FBI was also concerned with the intelligence “sources and methods” disclosed in the document and Winner was given more than five years in jail under the Espionage Act, the longest sentence ever handed down by a US federal court for someone disclosing government information to the media without permission.

It’s extraordinary – or maybe just plain lucky - that all the essential elements of the Reality Winner affair were contained in the audio recordings made that day by the FBI. 

It gives the film a pared-down, rigid framework and director Tina Satter in her first feature draws some impressively reserved and nuanced performances from the three leads: Sweeney, Hamilton and Davis. Satter had already staged her successful play In This Room about the Winner affair and this undoubtedly assisted her clear-eyed and gripping direction in Reality.

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