Reality Review: An Interrogation Becomes An Intense, Nerve-Wracking Film

Reality Winner returns home from grocery shopping and finds two men waiting for her. They slowly identify themselves as FBI agents, and they say they want to talk to Reality about classified documents. What follows is taken verbatim from the transcript of an FBI interview that went on for over an hour at Reality Winner's home. Tina Satter previously used the transcript for the play "Is This a Room," and now Satter brings the story to the screen with the almost unbearably tense "Reality." Here is a film that's essentially three people having a long conversation in a bare, dirty room, and I was on the edge of my seat nearly the entire time. There's an intensity to this material almost from the jump — if two FBI agents show up at your house, things are going to get anxiety-inducing real quick, no matter how faux-polite those agents may be.

Working with co-writer James Paul Dallas, director Satter is able to turn this mostly quiet conversation into something akin to a thriller. Even more impressive is the fact that we know how this story ends — Winner, a former member of the Air Force and a contract NSA translator, eventually went to jail for leaking classified documents about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yet even with this knowledge, "Reality" keeps us biting our nails and hanging on every word. We know things will turn out bad for Reality Winner, but we want to shout advice at the screen to her, as if she were a final girl in a horror film. 

Satter's direction is tight and focused, but the secret to the film's success is Sydney Sweeney. Sweeney has a tough task here, as the film is focused on her worried face for a large part of the runtime. As she unravels, perhaps the most remarkable thing Sweeney does is to show us what a bad liar Reality Winner apparently was. Right from the start, her answers are clumsy and awkward. She stutters, she squirms, she tries to smile. In short, she doesn't sound very believable. And by about 50 minutes into the movie, she's already a wreck, her large eyes red and wet, her body language painfully tense. She's been through the wringer, and we're getting pulled right along with her. 

An uneasy feeling

While the film rightly belongs to Sweeney, she's matched at every turn by Marchánt Davis and Josh Hamilton, playing the FBI agents questioning her. The feds are almost unbearably nice at first, asking Reality questions about her pets, her guns, and the yoga class she teaches. At the same time, they won't let her enter her own house alone while it's being searched, and whenever she makes a move indicating that she intends to walk out of their line of sight they're quick to run after her. As the interrogation continues, the overly nice vibe the agents are trying to throw off increases, which only makes the entire thing feel extra sinister. Every word they utter, no matter how mundane, feels threatening. "As you can see, we're all dog people!" says Hamilton's agent while Reality is dealing with her dog. He says it in such a way that he could be telling the truth or he could be lying through his teeth. Like Reality, we just don't know.

Soon, more agents will show up, all of them looking vaguely the same — polo shirts, dark sunglasses, beefy frames — all of them threatening in vague ways we can't quite pin down. The realism of the situation is heightened by little decisions, like the fact that Hamilton's character can't stop coughing, nor can he stop tripping over his words. There's an amusing moment where he stutters out a confusing word salad of a question and we get to see it translated verbatim into text.

Eventually, Reality directs the agents to an unfurnished backroom, which feels like a stage that is yet to be dressed. "I'm not big on furniture," she oddly tells them, which means there are no chairs and everyone stands around awkwardly, occasionally pacing, as the questioning begins. A film about people standing in a room talking could end up being mighty stagey, and, let's be honest, boring. But Satter is able to avoid that thanks both to great performances and a few neat little cinematic tricks.

The fact that all the dialogue here is taken from transcripts gives the entire film an eerie, eavesdropping quality. As the questioning begins, the audio on the soundtrack is altered to sound like rough words coming from a cheap tape recorder before switching over to more traditional-sounding audio. And as things unfold, several redacted words and phrases come up in the transcript. To get around this, Satter will literally show us the transcript being redacted. And whenever Reality or the agents are about to utter a redacted word, Satter will have them literally blink out of existence, the audio dropping out before they can get a word out, the spot they once occupied now empty. It sounds gimmicky but works perfectly, only adding to the uneasy feeling that prevails throughout the entire film. 

Is this a room?

The tragedy of Reality Winner is that her actions, while ill-advised, were done with all the right intentions. We see glimpses of Fox News pundits loudly shouting that Russia did not attack our elections, even though that's just not true — the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia really did interfere in the election in various ways. Reality herself seems flabbergasted that there's any doubt and that the American people seem oblivious — "Why isn't this getting out?!" she shouts late in the film after she's lost any semblance of cool. 

As for Reality herself, she may not know why she did what she did. The agents probe her over and over about a why, not because they care, but because they want to get her to confess. But the "why" is tricky. As Reality says herself, she had no intention of being the next Edward Snowden, another NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower. And yet that's what happened, and as she paces, and breathes heavily, and looks out with wide, nervous eyes at the men grilling her, we're neatly transported into her headspace; a headspace wondering how the hell this all happened.

"Reality" is an immensely never-wracking film that grips you from the get-go and never lets up. Like Reality Winner, we're all stuck in that dirty, empty room, wondering when we'll get out, and worrying about what will happen next. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10