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Reality review – Sydney Sweeney powers a paranoid sweatbox of a film

The 2017 interrogation of US whistleblower Reality Winner is rendered as a taut thriller with a revelatory performance at its core

Playwright-turned-filmmaker Tina Satter has adapted her acclaimed play about the US whistleblower Reality Winner (real name) into a taut and paranoid sweatbox of a film, anchored by a revelatory performance by the Euphoria and White Lotus star Sydney Sweeney. Using only the transcripts from a real 107-minute recording taken during a FBI interrogation at Winner's Georgia home in 2017, the film cleverly exposes not only the controversial tactics of the bureau itself, but poses interesting questions about the responsibility of those working inside government institutions with access to classified information.

I won't outline what Winner did here, except to say that she was arrested and imprisoned for five years following the events depicted in Satter's film – though Reality is a movie that works for both the uninitiated and the familiar. It begins as the former Air Force member, now working as an NSA translator, arrives home on one seemingly ordinary morning with bags of groceries to find FBI agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis) waiting for her. As the agents bide their time in an attempt to seemingly wean a confession out of Winner, the film emerges as an 83-minute inquisition, taken word-for-word from the real life transcript and gripping in spite of its slow-burn nature and lack of incident.

Satter's filmmaking style relies on the juxtaposition of extreme close-ups and wide shots that expose the true nature of the space between the interrogators and their suspect, occasionally cutting in pages of the transcript itself or blurring the visuals as to suggest information has been “redacted” by an interfering body. The film's driving appeal lies in our initial question, though: what could this unassuming, polite and very normal American girl have done? The transcript pushes its own sense of mounting intrigue as we learn more about Winner – the fact she has three guns in her house (one's pink) and speaks three Iranian languages seem bizarrely unmatched to this tiny, blonde figure dressed in jean shorts.

Satter and her cast lean into the inherent absurdity of the whole scenario — pauses have a slightly demented effect and the agents' nice-guy patter eventually stagnates to the point that is becomes genuinely eerie to listen to the banal chit-chat. Small talk about pets, namely Winner's dog (constantly barking and increasing the uneasiness) and her fat, bed-bound cat, strikes a balance between absurd and hilarious. But any sense of the comically surreal is later diminished by the big reveal itself, which takes place in a weird back room of the house that Winner herself refers to as “creepy,” all the time Satter pushing harder on the jarring sound design and frantic editing as her protagonist's position becomes further compromised.

Sweeney is perfectly cast to the extent you can't imagine the film without her, striking the exact right note of wide-eyed ambiguity as to keep Winner’s initial position vague without ever losing our sympathy for her situation. Satter's camera makes a frequent point of lingering on her face, and we marvel at Sweeney's micro-expressions, the subtle interplay between the panic we know she’s feeling deep inside and the overriding attempt to never overplay her hand. Sweeney has already proven she's capable of varied, dynamic work, but this role proves she has the talent to make even the smallest performance into something genuinely worthy of awards buzz.

The film wisely allows the viewer to grapple with the information presented on their own terms, the transcript approach ensuring we're in the unique cinematic position of hearing actual conversations played out with little to no embellishment. Still, it's fair to say that Reality is laced with empathy and understanding for its protagonist, even if her true motives remain murky. It's an immensely exciting debut for Satter, almost like witnessing the birth of a new sub-genre: the only downside is that it doesn't give us any explanation as to where Reality Winner got her incredible name.

Reality was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. It is released in UK cinemas on 2 June.

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