Credit: HBO
by Owen Vince Featured Film Streaming Scene

Reality — Tina Satter

May 29, 2023

Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning — these whistleblowers, through their defiance, would define the creeping American military industrial and security complex in the years after 9/11. We know their stories, which have been abundantly documented, disseminated, filmed. But there’s less chance you’ve heard of Reality Winner, whose own leak has now been adapted by first-time filmmaker Tina Satter (following a stage play she directed based on this saga). The events of Reality all unfolded in 2017, in the aftermath of the United States’ controversial 2016 presidential election. From her office in rural Georgia, Reality Winner — a “cryptologic linguist” working, under contract, for the NSA — stumbled across a classified document which revealed evidence of Russian interference in the contested election at a time when the U.S. government was vehemently denying these reports. This document, which Reality leaked to The Intercept, would be traced back to only a handful of individuals who had both the necessary clearance and who had “opened” the film. The interrogation of Reality herself, then — which represents the meat of this film — was undertaken in an effort to prove her guilt.

Satter’s film is a chamber piece, almost entirely unfolding within Reality’s home (and front yard), where she is interrogated, cat and mouse style, by an ever-increasing host of FBI agents, who seem almost to coagulate around her. The film is also a piece of archival work, using audio of the actual interrogation overlaid onto the performance of Sydney Sweeney (who plays Reality) — at least initially. Throughout the film, this audio will occasionally resurface, merging back into the proceedings and establishing a strangely affecting tension between the “real” interrogation and the scenes that play out in front of us on screen. These moments are like jolts, dissonances that remind us of the stakes and bring us — quite literally — back to Reality/reality, before soon enough tearing us away from it again. Crucially, the entire script is lifted verbatim from the interrogation transcript itself, offering another powerful dose of the authentic.

Sweeney is magnetic in the role. You can feel the gulp of her rising panic and her efforts to tamp it down. Satter spends a lot of time in a medium close-up, where each tense blink, fluttered breath, and anxiously bitten lip is registered and documented. Since the the film began life as a play — where the stage is necessarily “wide” — Satter here indulges in the corporeal benefits of what cinema can bring to this story: proximity, closeness, intimacy. This is not “filmed theater,” but is instead its own cinematic entity. It’s only later that you realize how much time you’ve spent looking — closely — at faces and bodies; it’s impossible to escape them. Satter keeps the film’s lighting even, so that nothing is accented, nothing shadowed or submerged except, of course, the intangible warp and weft of the power relations that structure the entire ordeal. The mise-en-scène is unsettlingly “banal”: AR-15 in pink decal; Pikachu bedspread; domestic desiderata.

Indeed, the “banality of evil” is an oft-used and frequently misapplied term, rarely fitting the context into which it’s dropped. It has a certain stretchiness. With Reality, Satter draws very close to a particular aesthetics of malignant banality, honing in on the blandly precise figurations of the security state. Blocking, set design, and above all, bodies — the bodies of FBI agents and policemen, of whom there are so many seen in the film — which become fleshy monoliths of state power. They are not fearful so much as ordinary, and this is how their horror properly arrives. Stretched-tight polo shirts, oakleys wrapped around sweating heads, visible crotch prints from too-tight khaki trousers — the men who slowly, unstoppably, close in around Reality seem more like lumps of dull meat than shadowy agents of the state (a long way from the elfin youthfulness of Mulder and Scully). Satter fills Reality’s small, tidy home almost-to-bursting with all this shuffling physicality — pressing against her without coming into actual physical contact. There’s a feeling of suffocation. They know more than her. They are the arbiters of reality. The effect recalls Alexei German’s very vaudevillian Khrustalyov, my Car! (1998) and My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), both of which unfold, densely, within packed-tight apartments. Here, however, the humor is vacuumed out, and that same corporeality and blocking is wielded to more oppressive ends. Reality feels lifted from the lifeworld of Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), where domestic space is inverted, its boundaries penetrated, and its signification — of comfort and safety — disrupted.

The primary “handlers” who deal with Reality — you can pun easily on the name and its relationship to “truthiness” — play a grim game of empathy: talking about bench presses (she lifts), dogs, the weather, the neighborhood. They smile and appear agreeable, but they are not, obviously, agreeable. Small gestures are loaded with implications of authority and power structures. The veil of false friendliness quickly snaps back into a visible band of control. For much of Reality, we’re suspended in a space without the crutch of dramatic irony; we don’t know, can only intuit, Reality’s innocence, or her guilt. This approach is refreshing — and makes us complicit. It also, cleverly, reproduces the information blackout that Reality herself experienced. Only the state knows what it does, and we are left to fumble in the darkness.

Still, Reality might overreach. In the final third, Satter introduces certain editorial flourishes and effects. When Reality utters the content of the redacted documents, her body is “redacted” from the film with an editorial snap — it’s clever, but a bit too TV. These breakages will date the film quickly, and represent its least interesting elements, dismantling a little of the carefully naturalistic camerawork and blocking that had held until this point. The same goes for scenes in which we see Reality in her office, removing the printed documents and pausing by a postbox (presumably after dispatching them). It’s here that the film begins to feel more didactic and uninterestingly “documentarian.” Whenever we’re present at the interrogation, Reality vibrates with a magnetic tension — between Sweeney’s darting eyes and the hard-now-soft smiles of her interlocutors, the sound of distant shuffling and knocking as a legion of FBI officers sift through her apartment. This is the world,  the moment, that matters, and it’s here that one wonders how much more affecting Reality might have been if it didn’t lean on these fragments from outside and instead kept us locked within the context of the interrogation itself. Escapology without an exit.

You can stream Reality on HBO beginning May 29.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.