I tend to enjoy biopics and movies that have a “based on true events” line splashed across the beginning of the film. I love going and researching the actual true events later or finding out more about the person featured. I was never a very good student of history, so these kinds of movies, while often not all that real, can be a gateway to actual learning for someone who can have trouble initially connecting with a dry textbook. Tina Satter’s “Reality,” currently playing on Max (formerly HBO Max), is something else. This is a word-perfect transcription of a conversation between Reality Winner and two FBI agents about a top-secret leak.
Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney) was a 25-year-old linguist working on an NSA contract. Through her access to classified documents, she discovered information pertaining to Russian interference in the 2016 election that she leaked to The Intercept. On June 3, FBI agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis) show up at her home. They are chummy with her, assuring her multiple times that everything is voluntary, but also stating that they have a warrant to search her home, her car, her person and her phone because there are concerns about a leak. As the film unfolds, it is clear they know what has happened and it’s going to spell trouble for this young woman.
This is a fascinating piece of history turned into a movie. It is based on Satter’s play, “This is a Room.” While plenty of films use pieces of conversations verbatim, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen something that is taken directly from a recorded conversation. It is fascinating because in this, we are allowed to see both how mundane and how dramatic real life interactions can be. When Reality runs to the door to make sure her cat doesn’t escape, it’s high drama. When she asks if she’s going to jail that night, it’s mundane. All of that can leave you feeling off-kilter.
The performances are all very good and precise. Sweeney is a talented actor and I loved the way she played this, particularly as we see her coming to the realization that this is probably not going to end well for her. Hamilton’s performance as Garrick, the primary interrogator is phenomenal. I kept waiting for him to turn hostile, but his steady manner throughout might be even more chilling.
The full story of Reality Winner is a fascinating and complicated one. It touches on national security, governmental accountability, and journalistic integrity. There will likely be ongoing debates about how to address leaks like this. But this film is a short snippet of time. It’s about two FBI agents trying to do their job, and still bungling it a bit. It’s about the contradictions of humanity. It’s about a young woman realizing that her decisions have been found out and worrying about who will take care of her cat and dog.
ALISE CHAFFINS is a Morgantown writer who loves movies and sharing her opinions. She reviews a movie from a streaming service every Saturday and one newly in theaters every Sunday. Find more at MacGuffin or Meaning on Substack.