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‘Reality’ takes its name seriously

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

On June 3, 2017, a military contractor and Air Force veteran named Reality Winner was arrested for leaking a classified intelligence report about Russian interference in U.S. elections. She was eventually convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. You may remember this.

The new movie Reality dramatizes the day of her arrest, but in such a quietly audacious way that it might be a little hard to believe—the entirety of the movie’s dialogue is drawn verbatim from an audio recording the FBI made of the proceedings on that day. What’s remarkable is how tense it all is despite this predetermined script, due primarily to the work of first-time director Tina Satter, who adapted the movie from her own play. The movie’s pulsing music and visual spareness work to tie our stomachs into knots, especially once Winner and a couple of agents end up in a strangely empty room in the back of Winner’s house, where the real interrogation takes place. Satter repeatedly reminds us that this is, well, reality, cutting to a waveform of the audio, or a transcript of the recording on a computer screen. The director does add a few unnecessary visual flourishes, especially late, and those are distracting, but this is mostly because of how effective the whole thing has been without those tricks. And enormous credit also goes to Sydney Sweeney, who plays Winner, with a face that’s initially enigmatic, and later betrays her realization that this is not going to end well, as the weight of the situation begins to show itself in her eyes and as her mouth turns further and further downward as her guts slowly leak out of her shoes.

That Satter and Sweeney are able to create such suspense when we already know where we’re going is a testament to their abilities, but there’s also something to be said for a movie where the outcome is determined—we can only watch as it happens, as the room gets smaller, and as reality closes in.

Reality is streaming on Max.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.