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The HBO movie makes the banality of interrogation riveting
If there's one specific thing I learned from Reality, the (extremely) fact-based cinematic experiment debuting on HBO, it's that being arrested by the FBI on charges of unauthorized transmission of national defense information is a surprisingly mundane affair.
The film stars Sydney Sweeney as the government whistleblower (or treasonous fifth columnist, depending on your point of view) with the unusual (but true) name Reality Winner, plus Josh Hamilton, Marchánt Davis, and several others as G-men who are either bumbling klutzes or brilliant agents of psychological discombobulation. The entire production, with just a few key flourishes, is taken directly from a transcript of an audio recording the FBI made during their interrogation. It is directed with precision and clarity by first-timer Tina Satter, based on a play she conceived in 2019 that won a number of Off-Broadway awards.
And let's just get to the biggest revelation: For as long as the FBI and Winner discuss her unlawful act of taking secret documents out of a secure workspace and sending them to journalists, they seem to spend just as much time talking about her dog and cat.
At first, there seems to be a good reason. The khakis-wearing, Greg Kinnear-esque Agent Garrick (Hamilton) and his upbeat and muscular partner Agent Taylor (Davis) tell Winner that they'll be entering her home with a warrant. We hear a dog, so they ask about securing it and whether it bites. Seems like they've learned a hard lesson before. Then they ask about other pets (there's a cat) and there is a lot of talk about where they can put said cat before they begin their search. It is a strange, almost Twilight Zone-ish preamble, and it seems to go on forever. This leads to chit chat about pet ownership in general, just like two people killing time when waiting for a bus. (What's best is that after decisions are finally made about what to do with the cat, other agents appear and fail to follow them.)
The eerie way Satter films all this, outside a tract house on a bland Augusta, Georgia, block, with muffled bumps and sounds of movement coming from inside, is weirdly riveting. You never quite know if the agents are just a bunch of dorks who have never done this sort of thing before (they can't seem to turn on Winner's mobile phone, then are shocked to see it requires no password) or maybe they are such experts that they are only giving the appearance of ineptitude to disarm her. With so much space (there's not really anything happening) all you do is sit there wondering what the hell these people are thinking.
By the time they finally start speaking for real — in an unadorned extra room in Winner's bland house — either her defenses are totally down, or she's so flummoxed she has little energy left to lie about her actions. (She's pretty quick to fold.) It is all so bizarre, and it makes me think I've never seen a realistic confession in any cop movie before.
The bulk of the second half is mainly just Hamilton and Sweeney talking. Eventually it becomes obvious that the FBI knows exactly what she did; they are just nudging her toward a direction of admitting it. There are a few flashbacks in which we see Winner sitting at her cubicle as a translator for the NSA — and there's also a clever cinematic trick to "wink out" whenever key phrases from the transcript have been redacted — but, by and large, this is two people in a room, slowly heading toward the inevitable.
Though purposefully small in its scope, this film is a terrific showcase for the 25-year-old Sydney Sweeney. While the actress is certainly well known, it's fair to say her work in The White Lotus and Euphoria has largely been marketed on her appearance. Reality proves that she ain't just a pretty face. It takes real chops to sell a role like this, in which someone is hiding what they are really thinking the whole time.
Despite Reality's clinical decision to just clip-and-paste dialogue, it is not a movie without a political point of view. Most will come away thinking it is a pro-Reality Winner piece. If you've forgotten what it was she did — the news cycle does spin rather quickly these days — you can do a quick Google search to remind yourself. Or, better yet, watch this unusual and artfully made film. There's not likely to be another one like it anytime soon.
Premieres: Monday, May 29 at 10/9c on HBO and Max
Who's in it: Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, Marchánt Davis
Who's behind it: Tina Satter (director and co-screenwriter), James Paul Dallas (co-screenwriter)
For fans of: Intense but mundane conversations, Sydney Sweeney