HBO Lands Reality, Sydney Sweeney-Led Drama About Imprisoned 'Russiagate' Whistleblower

In the early hours of a June afternoon in 2017, a young woman named Reality Winner heard a knock on the door of her Texas home. Standing on the doorstep were two FBI agents who asked, in a cordial though not un-threatening tone, to be let inside. The conversation that unfolded between them over the following 90 minutes would not only change the course of Winner's life, but alter the trajectory of the country's history. The following year she would be sentenced to five years and three months in jail on charges that she wilfully stole and distributed classified documents surrounding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The Reality Winner story was plastered across the media in 2017 and 2018, rising to the level of front page news for months in a time when every day seemed to dredge up shocking front page news: accusations that The Intercept, the outlet Winner mailed the documents to, paved the way for her arrest by mishandling the story; the fact that Winner's sentence is the harshest a whistleblower has received in U.S. history; the implications the leak had on the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. Though very little was known about Winner herself, it seemed she had become a star player in our contemporary political drama overnight.

Now, people around the world will get the chance to learn a bit more about the mysterious whistleblower and former NSA translator. After a glowingly-received premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, Tina Satter's "Reality" has been picked up by HBO Films, per Deadline. But from the sound of early notices, Satter's ingeniously conceived drama may only complicate the myth surrounding Winner.

Sydney Sweeney's turning point

Though "Reality" marks Tina Satter's feature film debut, it isn't her first time telling the Reality Winner story. In 2019, she produced "Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription," a theatrical staging of the conversation between Winner and the FBI agents from the morning of her arrest. The show reproduced the encounter word for word based on official transcripts, throwing a spotlight on the abusive tactics American intelligence agents use to coerce information out of their marks, while highlighting the gender dynamics at play in this particular instance. 

"Reality" seems essentially to be an adaptation of the play. Sydney Sweeney appears in the starring role, marking an exciting turning point in the young star's career. Sweeney is best known for her Emmy-nominated turns as Cassie Howard on "Euphoria" and Olivia Mossbacher on the first season of "The White Lotus," both also HBO titles. On screen, Sweeney renders even the most jaded and guarded characters as irresistibly empathetic. Her disarming vulnerability and refreshing naturalism belie a patient intelligence when it comes to characterization. At the Berlinale press conference for "Reality," Sweeney revealed that Satter put the whistleblower and the star in contact as part of her prep. She described the "privilege" of being able to speak with Winner as "a dream for an actor."

It would have been easy to make a straightforward biopic of Winner, tinged with admiration for her bravery and compassion for her persecution. But might that not have amounted to just another betrayal of her privacy? Thankfully, this thorny story seems to have gotten the complex treatment it deserves, courtesy of Satter and Sweeney. We'll just have to wait for HBO to announce a premiere date.