In 2017, former NSA contractor Reality Winner was arrested by the FBI and charged under the Espionage Act for leaking documents pertaining to Russia’s attempts to hack into American voting machines during the 2016 election. The resulting court battle, waged during President Donald Trump’s obsession with “leakers,” was widely publicized but often buried beneath news of the President’s seemingly daily controversies. As a result, one of the biggest single injustices enacted against a United States citizen by the justice department in recent memory passed without much outcry or fanfare.
Prejudice against political whistleblowers is certainly not new in American politics. Names like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden are well known, and their bravery for speaking out against injustices being committed by the government has turned them into something like folk heroes. Reality Winner is likely lesser known, despite being only the eighth person to be convicted under the Espionage Act since it was passed in 1917, and Sonia Kennebeck‘s new documentary seeks to shift that reality, even going so far as to interview Snowden extensively about the FBI’s tactics and the particular offense the Justice Department seems to take toward whistleblowers. The result is United States vs. Reality Winner, a remarkably efficient and clear-eyed documentary that examines Winner’s case from her initial arrest and interrogation (releasing the FBI’s interrogation tapes publicly for the very first time) through her year-long imprisonment and leading up to her trial. Unable to interview Winner herself, Kennebeck focuses instead on her parents’ tireless crusade to get justice for their daughter, whose actions never harmed national security and whose only “crime” was the revelation of another.
Structurally, United States vs. Reality Winner is fairly standard documentary fare, but in taking such a personal look at a figure who has only previously been known to the public according to what political pundits have said about her, the film puts the injustices perpetrated by the United States government into even sharper focus. In one of the most infuriating aspects of Winner’s story, her document was published in full by The Intercept without taking the proper precautions to protect their source, allowing the FBI to identify her as the leaker, a fact the outlet’s editor-in-chief brushes off in the film by saying, essentially, that she’d have been caught anyway, before offering a weak focus-group approved apology. It’s an element the film certainly should have interrogated more, but with the original reporters refusing to comment on the record, it’s admittedly difficult to really explore the egregious journalistic malpractice on display there.
Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible to walk away from the film without feeling some sense of outrage — at the FBI, certainly, for their underhanded “we’re just talking, no big deal” interrogation tactics, at the Justice Department for treating the revelation of a crime as worse than the crime itself, and at the country as a whole for its culture of secrecy that punishes those who dare to speak inconvenient truths. When the state is more interested in prosecuting people who reveal crimes than those who perpetrate them, it’s not hard to see that the system is corrupt beyond all salvation. United States vs. Reality Winner is a damning, damaging documentary that takes no prisoners, presenting its case with a journalistic authority that stands in stark contrast to how its content was covered by the news media.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.