On the 3rd of June 2017, 25-year- old U.S. Air Force veteran and NSA translator Reality Winner returned to her home in Augusta, Georgia after running errands to find two FBI agents waiting for her. The ensuing interrogation, which was recorded by the agents, documented their interrogation of Reality and their search warrant of her home, under suspicion of espionage against the United States. One would be forgiven for thinking that 'Reality', the unbelievably tense directorial debut of Tina Satter, has played up the stakes of the real-life event it documents; however, the script we see come to life on screen is actually lifted exactly from a transcription of what occurred at Reality's house that day. What transpires is a gripping thriller that often adds unnecessary frills to an already compelling story.
Satter has had a deep interest in Reality's story for nearly five years now; she originally brought the transcript to life in an off-Broadway play called 'Is This a Room', before taking it to Broadway in 2021 and before the big screen in 2023. Her unwavering fidelity to the transcript leaves her cast able to perfectly recreate the stammers and stop-starts of authentic speech, and they absolutely devour this. Even if you don't know much about Reality's story, there's an unwavering feeling that she is doomed the moment she sees agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton, 'Eighth Grade') and Taylor (Marchánt Davis, 'The Day Shall Come') in her driveway. Their amicable small talk about groceries, pets and music for yoga classes in between moments in the search warrant escalates the tension even further. This is intercut with flashes of the real-life raid of Reality's home and screenshots of her real-life social media posts. These all culminate to reflect the pedestrian nature of her existence and pose the question of just how this everyday girl could have become embroiled in such a serious investigation.
SWITCH: 'REALITY' TRAILER 2
One of the most rewarding elements of 'Reality' is seeing Sydney Sweeney finally get her star-making role. Having danced around the A-list with her TV roles in 'Euphoria' and 'The White Lotus', many will assume that her upcoming roles in Marvel's 'Madame Web' and the hotly-anticipated romcom 'Anyone But You' will cement her status. In fact, it's her stripped-down presence in 'Reality' that should be celebrated; make-up free and donning simple denim shorts and a white shirt, this is a far cry from the eye-candy roles we have seen Sweeney typically gravitate towards. Satter captures her in frequent close-ups, so audiences can study the micro expressions that give away the truth of Reality's circumstance. When Reality ultimately confesses – spoiler alert, but it's a well-documented real-life event – to leaking a classified report on Russia's interference with the 2016 U.S. election, it feels more like a sigh of relief that the other shoe has dropped rather than a huge revelation. This is because the conversation that eventually ruins Reality's life is played off so casually by everyone involved. The agents don't want to believe Reality has actually done what they are there to arrest her for, even in the face of damning evidence, and Reality doesn't want to face, well, the reality of what she has done. The big revelation comes in the reason behind her sedate reaction to the entire interrogation, and why it takes her so long to ask for a lawyer; Reality genuinely doesn't think she has done anything wrong. It's heartbreaking to see her loyalty to the American people – the entire drive for her passion for her job – be twisted into an act of perceived treason, and her faith in the state destroyed.
One of the most rewarding elements of 'Reality' is seeing Sydney Sweeney finally get her star-making role.
The transcript Satter uses had been declassified, however some parts of the transcript were kept redacted; this is shown on screen with Reality and the agents "glitching" out of frame and a tense sound effect behind it. It's a trick that runs old quickly; a far more effective way to approach this could have been a bleep à la 'Kill Bill: Volume 1' style. Additionally, once the recording of the interrogation begins, the sound design cleverly matches that of dialogue being taped, but this is dropped very early on. Keeping this sound design consistent through the film would have really mitigated the need for more superfluous methods of reminding us constantly that what we are watching unfold actually happened.
While some of its creative decisions feel out of step with the grounded nature of its stranger-than-fiction script, 'Reality' is a compelling bottle film that boasts a must-see Sydney Sweeney performance, and manages to find humanity even in the tensest of circumstances.