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sydney-sweeney.jpg

Sydney Sweeney Blows the Whistle on the Trump-Putin Bromance in ‘Reality’

By Sara Clements | Film | June 2, 2023 |

By Sara Clements | Film | June 2, 2023 |


sydney-sweeney.jpg

Imagine working in an office that has Fox News playing all day long. Probably a great reason to quit. But imagine that in 2017 during Donald Trump’s presidency … even worse! That’s what NSA translator, Reality Winner (played here by Sydney Sweeney), had to deal with every day. Eventually, the ex-Air Force member had had enough. As Fox News announces Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey over his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Reality has a confidential document sitting on her desk: the NSA’s intelligent report detailing how Russian hackers had accessed voter information through email phishing scams. She blew the whistle. A patriotic duty that saw her receive a prison sentence of five years for the unauthorized release of government information to the media.

What follows for Reality’s 80 minutes is an interrogation at her home in Augusta, Georgia, by the FBI in 2017 prior to her arrest. The low hum of the score signals something is brewing, quickly followed by text on the screen that explains that the dialogue in the film will be verbatim from the transcript of the FBI recording taken that day. It’s a fly-on-the-wall tactic of cinéma vérité that makes this an even more compelling watch than something dramatized. The authenticity in Tina Satter’s first directorial and writing credit isn’t only built around the dialogue. The film utilizes other technical elements to its advantage.

If there isn’t much happening on screen, the scene is replaced by a WAV file. We don’t need to see Reality emptying grocery bags, and only being privileged to the muffled sounds adds an air of secrecy. What also happens often in the film is the transcript appearing on screen. Dialogue is typed out onto official paper as the FBI does their interrogation. It’s all so absorbing, with the script’s dedication to accuracy really coming into play when we move into dialogue that is redacted from the transcript. Suddenly, the scene stops, and Sweeney is zapped out of the scene but quickly returns moments later. The redacted gaps are filled in later on, but it’s easy to figure out what was said without it. What also benefits the story is editing in photos of the real Reality Winner, especially images of her Instagram posts for context on what she recounts or to go back to certain dates in question.

It can be difficult to create a film to engage the masses that is set in only one location and very dialogue-heavy, but Sweeney is acting with a capital A, so it’s not hard for her to keep the audience’s undivided attention. Reality is an interesting character. As two FBI agents, Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis), approach her home with a search warrant, she doesn’t seem worried at all. Granted, these FBI agents don’t fit the typical look. There are no blue jackets with a bright yellow logo. There are no bulletproof vests or guns drawn. They look like two buddies about to hit up the golf course. They aren’t the hard, bad cop types, either. They seem to genuinely want to get to know Reality but are always looking at her with suspicion. She can play along with their small talk with a smile. Sweeney’s charming giggle feigns innocence. She’s good at acting like she has nothing to hide.

The film has a suspiciously calm air at first; a calm before the storm. But as the situation escalates and the FBI begins to grill Reality more intensely about mishandling classified documents, she gets nervous. We get nervous. Sweeney’s body language changes to indicate an increased discomfort. She rubs her arm, looking around terrified. Sweeney plays a woman trying to hold it together, but her big, expressive eyes tell a different story. She’s holding back tears with her head held high. The film builds a sense of suffocation as we move from outdoors to indoors. Confined to a room, she sticks to the wall, then she paces with the heaviness of breath. The buzzing of fluorescent lights becomes unbearable, the camera’s lens blurs and everything around her is dizzying. Reality sets in for Reality, and she doesn’t come out a winner, to the law at least.

Whenever information is leaked to the public, the focus always seems to be put on the crime rather than the information. Reality asks the question, “Why?” The film ends with a headline that reports on the fact that the Senate saw what Reality did as a public service, as Congress and election officials shared the information to ensure the integrity of the nation’s voting systems. She broke the rules for the good of democracy, but she was met with the most severe punishment. It’s a fear tactic to keep people in the dark and in check but what kind of patriotism is silence?

Reality is available to stream on Max.