In 2018, a judge sentenced Reality Winner to more than five years in prison for leaking information about Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election. Judge J. Randall Hall wanted to make an example of the former NSA translator, who informed Americans of what their government preferred to keep hidden. Winner was 26 years old at the time and received the longest sentence in the country’s history for “an unauthorized disclosure to the media.”
Susanna Fogel’s latest film tries to make a different example of the former federal employee. Winner shapes the somber material of its subject’s life into a jaunty coming-of-age story. It builds a profile of Reality, played here by Emilia Jones (CODA), as a staunchly humanitarian figure who wanted to dedicate her life to service. That ambition finds an odd home in the U.S. military. The screenplay — a collaboration between Fogel and journalist Kerry Howley — moves through the expected beats of a biopic. Reality becomes a relatable figure, one by whom a younger audience unfamiliar with her might feel inspired.
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Winner doesn’t haunt like Tina Satter’s Reality, a striking film that features dialogue culled directly from FBI transcripts and a remarkable performance from Sydney Sweeney. But Fogel’s project does try to complicate the contractor’s public portrait. Who is this young woman, a talented linguist who took it upon herself to mail evidence of Russian hacking to the media? What did her life look like before the U.S. courts tried to paint her as a traitor? And why is it critical that people care? The film’s approach to these questions results in a perfectly agreeable, if limited, piece of work.
The story begins with Reality acknowledging, via voiceover, the strangeness of her name, a notable combination of nouns portending its bearer’s fate. She had always been a real-life champion, a kind of practical hero. Winner opens with Reality engaging in a minor liberatory effort, which ends up ruining her older sister’s 11th birthday. Upon learning about the conditions faced by the dogs in the pet store, 9 year-old Reality (Annelise Pollmann) frees the canines from their cages. Brittany (Avery Peters) wanted a puppy; Reality sought emancipation.
The young maverick’s enlightenment about justice and oppression came from her father, Ron (Zach Galifianakis, in a role whose depth unfurls slowly), a writer and stay-at-home dad. While Reality’s mother Billie (a fine Connie Britton) went off to work as a social worker, her father would expound on world issues. Their conversations — especially the ones around the September 11th attacks — inspired Reality to learn more about the relationship between the United States and countries in the Middle East. She taught herself Arabic in high school (a fact the courts would later use to accuse her of terrorism) and argued against racism and stereotyping. Reality’s courage was shaped primarily at the dinner table. Through these suppertime debates, Fogel reveals the prickly layers within the family. Reality spars most with her mother and sister, whose social conservatism she finds grating.
Reality joins the military because conversations with eager recruiters convince her it’s the best way to help people. These representatives for the armed forces promise the 17 year-old with dreams of traveling the world that she will eventually end up in the Middle East. But she never makes it overseas. After basic training, Reality spends the next several years rotating through different offices. Fogel and editor Joseph Krings compose efficient vignettes — montages coupled with Jones’ voiceover — to communicate the monotony of Reality’s daily life. She works out excessively (a gesture to her eating disorder), volunteers and donates to charity. Her job in the military, and later at the NSA, is to translate conversations, which will help the U.S. drone program bomb their enemies. Here, Winner offers an authentic representation of modern warfare and the scope of the surveillance apparatus put in place after 9/11.
21st-century combat happens remotely, and some of the most violent parts of the United States’ mammoth war machine are facilitated by ordinary people. Reality is one of them, and Fogel tries to emphasize that by detailing the young woman’s personal life. We see Reality make friends at work, get a boyfriend (played with admirable passion by Danny Ramirez) and watch her sister get married. The moral implications of her day job mount alongside personal problems within her family and her relationship.
Despite the challenges in Reality’s life, Winner always hums along. The story rarely shakes its amiable tone or relative tidiness. Moments of tension are fleeting and mostly bound to familiar fragments of the narrative: Reality sneaking the documents out of her office; the FBI interrogation in her home. There is a scene with a printer that manages to conjure appropriate levels of dread, but, for the most part, Winner is married to a quirky tone. It’s committed to showing us how Reality is, in the words of her own character, “not a normal girl.”
What a strange modus operandi. Part of the fascination with Reality is the ordinariness of her background. (The other interesting part of her case has to do with the way The Intercept, the website to which she mailed the file, handled the verification process, which the film doesn’t get into.) For a spunky blonde Texan from a hard-working middle-class family to challenge the government doesn’t track with how the United States imagines itself. Even Reality knows that: There’s a moment during her trial when she comments about milking the stereotypes of her appearance to reduce her sentence. What does it mean when a vision of the American Dream rejects national delirium?
The nation-state can’t have that, can it? That’s why Judge Hall punished her; it’s why Reality spent time in solitary confinement, which Fogel rightly presents onscreen. It’s why her case feels so unsettling. It reveals that safety is an illusion for many Americans, especially those who try to expose the country’s hypocrisy.
Jones holds her own, but her performance lives in the shadow of Sweeney’s more complex portrayal. Although she nails the comedic beats of Winner, her shift to embodying a disillusioned, cagier version of the optimistic humanitarian is shaky. It becomes more difficult, throughout the film, to see the Reality onscreen as a real person instead of a projection. Someone, in Hall’s words, to be made an example of.
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