How much reality can you inject into a drama without making it boring, and how much drama can you inject into a re-enactment of real events without making it laughable? The film Reality by Tina Satter, which hits French screens on Wednesday August 16, answers precisely these two questions in 82 minutes. The film was written from a Broadway play, Is This a Room, which takes all of its dialogue from the official transcript of Reality Winner’s initial interrogation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) .
On June 3, 2017, twenty-five-year-old Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney, previously revealed in Euphoria and The White Lotus) is questioned by two FBI agents, Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchant Davis), at her home. This banal and sometimes surreal conversation, with each dialogue taken from the authentic transcript of the interrogation, paints a complex portrait of an American millennial, veteran of the US Air Force, yoga teacher, who loves animals. , travel and share photos on social networks. Why is the FBI interested in her? Who is Reality really? After the events shown in the film, she was sentenced to five years in prison under the Espionage Act – the longest federal sentence ever handed down for unauthorized disclosure of government information to the press.
The title, Reality, can be understood in two ways. It obviously first refers to its main character, Reality Winner, whose curious first name was chosen by her father for reasons she doesn’t seem to grasp. But, indirectly, the term “reality” also describes writer/director Tina Satter’s stripped down approach. Reality is quite a fascinating formal experience – a kind of historical drama, almost behind closed doors, in which all the dialogue is factual and all the poetic license is between the lines. Viewers’ reactions may vary depending on what they already know about the case, as some key information is redacted from the transcript. It is only at the end of the film that we are entitled to a brief reminder of the facts, in a documentary style, through texts and archive images. At this stage, Reality is more openly supportive of Winner, citing a U.S. Senate report suggesting his action did a public service. However, for most of the film’s runtime, there is no editorialization except from Winner or the federal authorities themselves. Reality is essentially a procedural film, an informative document about how federal agents attempt to extract confessions. The director admirably captures the banality of events during Reality’s interrogation with clinical precision. But it’s also a film tinged with the absurd, precisely because it’s so “real”. Ironically, the banality of the situation is what makes it intermittently both bizarre and fascinating.
Presumably the agents are trying to bond with Winner and put her at ease, in order to get her to tell the whole story. Yet no TV series writer would be likely to concoct the kind of rambling conversation they have with their suspect. Long dialogue sequences are devoted to pets and physical exercises. Winner talks about his cat’s predilection for carbs, even after confessing to stealing secrets from the NSA… Other moments border on situation comedy. If the transcription is rich in non-sequences – just like obviously the reality of the story – the direction and the performances of the actors transform it into a gripping tragedy. You don’t need to know the political background to see that Winner is a driven young person who strives to turn his beliefs into concrete actions. She feels frustrated in her career as a crypto-linguist. She makes no apologies for living or vacationing alone. She curries favor with agents by using tongue-in-cheek humor, but she rarely smiles. With talent and nuance, Sweeney shows us how even someone so withdrawn can go from an impassive declaration of innocence to a destabilized confession in a few hours. Satter’s staging conveys the distortion of Winner’s inner world as the pressure mounts. Immediately after his confession, for example, a snail resting on a window frame suddenly becomes the subject of intense close-ups. In this visual context, his nervous chatter takes on its full meaning – it is an anchor to normalcy. When Winner acknowledges that her crime was a response to chronic feelings of anger and despair, we mourn her. But this is not a moment of partisan bravery, but rather an acknowledgment that life is still difficult for individuals who feel stuck in the cogs of institutions. Like most of us, Winner has both noble and petty motives: She wants to inform the public, and she’s furious that her employer is running Fox News all day at the office. It is from these daily frustrations that history is built.
Reality is an odd mix of the captivating and the mundane – a film in which politeness is used as a weapon and trickery is disguised as embarrassment. With him, reality demonstrates that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. And when in addition, it is filtered by the vision of an artist, it can be just as, if not more, convincing.