American translator Reality Winner (yes, that’s her name) is probably better known in Europe than the U.S., thanks in part to Tina Satter’s extraordinary arthouse film Reality (2023), which dramatized the 25-year-old Texas translator’s arrest in 2017 using the verbatim transcripts of her interactions with the FBI.
Winner, a funny and surprisingly powerful biopic directed and cowritten by Susanna Fogel, will go quite a long way towards raising her profile back home.
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By no means as controversial as previous whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange — all she did really was photocopy a piece of paper and send it to a fringe-left website — Reality Winner somehow became a punching bag for the American government, and the disproportionate punishment for her crime could give this film traction in an election year that is being fought more than ever before on a battlefield where principles are the first casualty.
You wouldn’t think there’d be enough to sustain nearly two hours of Winner’s story, given that, despite her best efforts, she never left the country. However, thanks in part to a terrific performance by CODA star Emilia Jones, Winner (subtitled: Based on Reality), justifies every minute — and could even use a few more.
It begins with a series of flashbacks, the first showing a 9-year old Winner releasing a pack of cute puppies being held in a cage at a shopping-mall pet store. This causes friction with her sister, Brittany (Kathryn Newton), whose dreams of getting a dog have just been momentarily kiboshed.
However, Reality’s father Ron (Zach Galifianakis), a struggling and highly idealistic writer recovering from a serious back injury, is much more approving of this “pure political act.”
“We all need a hill to die on,” he says, though her mother Billie (Connie Britton), a social worker, urges Winner to show more caution in the future.
There’s a suggestion that Ron has already planted the seeds of social justice in her mind. But when the Twin Towers fall later that same year, Winner is shocked by America’s apparent unwillingness to enter into a dialogue with the Arab world.
After learning various dialects, including Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, she joins the RAF, where her translation skills save hundreds of lives from terrorist bomb plots. Nevertheless, there’s not much job satisfaction to be had from this; Winner’s intelligence work feeds directly into a sharp rise in the use of drone strikes under the Obama administration, and it weighs heavily on her conscience. “I never meet the people I save,” she says. “I only see the people who die.”
Winner’s success with the RAF is useful knowledge that the government later downplayed at her trial, and if it weren’t for the snobbishness of the NGO world — who refused to accept her practical RAF service in lieu of a college education — there is every reason to believe that Winner would by now be a relief worker somewhere in the Middle East.
Instead, she followed the money and became an NSA contract worker, the former Hot Topic kid dressing soberly, at her sister’s suggestion, “like Hillary Clinton at a sex-trafficking convention.” By now it is 2017, and Donald Trump’s surprise election win is all over the media. So, too, are reports suggesting America’s voting machines have been subject to cyber-attacks by the Russians. The official view, parroted in the workplace by Fox News, is that there is no evidence to suggest this is true. But Winner, through snooping around in classified files, discovers that such “hearsay” is 100% credible.
In light of what we now know, which is that Winner’s actions resulted in more attention to her unusual name than the government’s misinformation, her whistleblowing activities now seem horribly futile. But the wonderful thing about Fogel’s whipsmart film is that it shares Winner’s seemingly indefatigable belief that right is might. It also raises the class divide that, as Winner’s mother points out, resulted in comparatively pitiful penalties for the likes of Russian spy Maria Burtina and Trump associate Paul Manafort. Even though Winner tells its protagonist’s story with a spoonful of sugar — Pablo Larrain’s anti-Pinochet movie No springs to mind, or even Adam MacKay’s Vice — her punishment begins to seem so cruel that the cruelty can only be the point.
The film begins with the polarizing press that surrounded Winner’s arrest back in 2017, which painted her in broad strokes as either a hero or a traitor. But there is a deeper and more troubling binary here, as represented in a subplot involving Winner’s father and his dangerous reliance on opiates.
As Winner opines, America, supposedly the land of the free, is a dichotomy, a country that makes life hard for those who want to help other people and rewards those who hurt them. It’s a reasonable point, and, once made, is very, very hard to unsee.
Festival (Section): Sundance (Premieres)
Sales agent: UTA
Director: Susanna Fogel
Screenwriters: Kerry Howley, Susanna Fogel
Cast: Emilia Jones, Connie Britton, Zach Galifianakis, Kathryn Newton, Shannon Berry
Running time: 1 hr 43 min
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