Reality Winner was so real for that: A Review of Reality (2023)

by Eloise Wajon

During season 2 of the quintessential Zoomer television show, Euphoria, Sydney Sweeney became a household name. Her character, Cassie Howard, is something of a tragic figure: a testament to coming of age in the era of PornHub, post-puppy love and fumbling around in the dark. She desires only to attract and hold men’s attention, seldom appearing without meticulous application of makeup and trendy, sexualised attire, catered specifically to the whims of whichever man she’s chasing at that moment. In Reality, Sweeney primarily dons one outfit: a white button-up shirt, mid-length denim shorts, and a completely bare face - not a rhinestone or wash of blue eyeshadow in sight. Even at first glance, the roles of Cassie Howard and Reality Winner could not be more different.

Reality is the story of the real-life whistleblower Reality Winner’s FBI interrogation, concerning the leak of classified documents which prove Russia’s interference in the 2016 United States Election. The film strays very little from the confirmed timeline of events, or indeed the transcript of the interrogation itself - the result is refreshingly naturalistic compared to films with similar concepts such as Spotlight and Erin Brockovich.

First-time director Tina Satter rises to the challenge of spinning an interrogation transcript into a narrative, using remarkable visual techniques to indicate redacted information and direct reference to the transcript that add to the film’s jarring, eerie tone. Under Satter’s direction, we are able to observe not just what can be made out from the FBI’s transcript, but what is several layers underneath: namely the fear of a woman who lives alone surrounded by 6 or more male FBI agents in her residence.

Sweeney, for all her classic Hollywood beauty, was born to play Reality Winner. Not a breath out of place or devoid of subtext, it is clear she thrives in roles where the devil’s in the details - not that the film ever makes Reality Winner out to be the devil. One of the strongest forces behind the film’s power is its refusal to sit on the fence. Reality is on Winner’s side from the very beginning, and this gives the film clarity, in spite of the lack of focus that may be expected from a film based on a several-hour-long interrogation, with very few cuts or edits. 

The film only falters when it addresses the media coverage of Winner’s arrest towards the end - the lengthy clips of Tucker Carlson occupying the whole screen take us out of our focus on Winner as a character and instead catapult us into Winner as a political pawn, and should have been far less prominent if included at all. But the film ends sharply, reminding us with an on-screen text, of the impact the real Winner had on the world. She is quoted as saying, “I knew it was secret, but I also knew that I had pledged service to the American people.” 

Overall, Reality is a film that takes risks and doesn’t aim to please everyone. It flags director Tina Satter as a figure to watch and marks the revelation of Sydney Sweeney’s depth as an actor, and like the real-life Reality Winner, it takes a stance and accepts the consequences with outstanding grace.

Eloise Wajon is a second-year Fine Arts/Arts student, majoring in Creative Writing. In her spare time, she likes to play video games and defend Taylor Swift in the comments section of Buzzfeed articles.

Blitz Editor

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