‘Reality’: Captured on Tape, Captivating on Screen

Sydney Sweeney shines in this no-frills docu-thriller about whistleblower Reality Winner.

by Nick Kush

Despite nestling into the role of this generation’s it girl, Sydney Sweeney has always struck me as someone who is completely in control of her career. Each choice is a clear effort to buck against typecasting while also showing the ability to be more chameleonic than initially meets the eye. She might go on to become a movie star and garner the roles typically associated with one, but movies like Reality are a sign that she is interested in much more.

On June 3rd, 2017, the FBI came to Reality Winner’s home in Augusta, Georgia based on information that pointed to her as a prime suspect in the leaking of intelligence claiming that Russia hacked a U.S. voting software supplier in the days leading up to the 2016 election. The two agents who questioned Reality wore recording devices on their wrists — the film itself is a word-for-word translation of their audio, taking place mostly in one empty, dingy room of her nondescript house.

If this sounds like it was meant for the stage, it was: director Tina Satter adapted her play, This Is a Room, into Reality. Her debut film work is very impressive, taking what could come across as stilted and making it very tense. While some films clean up the real-life conversations they pull from for pacing or scene construction, Reality leans into the awkwardness and derives plenty of anxiety from it.

Early moments like the agents (played tremendously by Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) asking Reality to corral her pets or the clumsy small talk that occurs as other agents go about their procedure are excruciating to watch. Somehow, an extended conversation about powerlifting is seriously nerve-wracking. Adding to the discomfort is the film’s ambient, but sinister score, which never becomes overbearing but certainly makes its presence felt.

The film overplays its hand at times in making sure the audience understands what they’re hearing is real, cutting away from a scene to show audio waves from the recording or the creation of the transcript. It’s unnecessary. (It does lead to some fun, glitch-in-the-matrix visuals that stand in for redactions, though.) There is, however, so much to read into with each word. For all the time spent in the minutiae of how agents clear rooms, they never read Reality her Miranda rights. They present themselves as stern but decent, yet small cracks in their actions indicate they are thinking differently. Likewise, seeing the FBI on her lawn isn’t shocking to Reality. She’s calm, compliant, and never fidgety. She already knows what’s going to happen to her. You’re left to wonder what’s going on in all their heads. There’s a strong sense that everyone is attempting to keep up appearances.

Sweeney vanishes into the role, remaining guarded throughout, and never explicating her mental state. I’m reminded of her performance in Clementine, in which she plays a character you can never quite get your arms around. Portraying caginess is clearly one of her best talents. Satter weaponizes it effectively too, creating a compelling character in a whistleblower film that doesn’t have to overexplain itself to make itself heard.

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