Film

In sticking closely to the verbatim transcription of an FBI interrogation, Reality director Tina Satter has created a disturbing and powerful film. By Anthony Carew.

Reality

A woman swearing a white shirt stands with her arms crossed as she faces two men.
Sydney Sweeney as Reality Winner in a scene from Tina Satter’s Reality.
Credit: HBO Films

On June 3, 2017, the FBI arrived with a search warrant at the home of a 25-year-old United States Air Force veteran who was working as a Farsi translator for a private National Security Agency contractor. They had evidence Reality Winner – yes, that is her birth name – had, a month before, leaked to the press classified, as-yet-unpublished documents about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Documenting the interview of the suspect, an FBI agent began an audio recording at 4.10pm. That recording lasted for an hour and seven minutes, and it serves as the basis of Reality, a real-time work that inhabits the mounting tension of an interrogation. Shot, unusually, in chronological order, it takes its dialogue entirely from a transcript of the FBI’s recording.

Debut director Tina Satter turned this into the verbatim theatre play Is This a Room. Bringing it to screen, she transposes the work into a real-world setting, into the mundane realm of quotidian “reality”. The loaded title riffs on both the subject’s name and the very nature of the film: a work of cinematic re-creationism and dramatised vérité that finds real resonance by simply sticking to the (tran)script.

A short prologue finds its titular subject (played by Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney) observed from a distance at her desk in an office cubicle, while wall-mounted televisions blare Fox News coverage of the James Comey hearings. It seems benign but this is the moment that will lead to Winner’s eventual arrest under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Twenty-five days later she arrives home to be greeted by FBI agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis, who debuted in another provocative FBI movie, Chris Morris’s 2019 satire The Day Shall Come), the smiling faces of all-American justice. They’re overly polite, conscious the recording of their work will be – in the way of call centres – reviewed for performance and training.

They’re followed by a swarm of agents clad in matching khakis and coloured polo shirts, their neat casual uniforms a visual evocation of the banality of evil. Satter often captures Winner as a woman in a sea of men, standing politely by as a co-operating participant in the invasion of her home.

Her concern initially is to get groceries in the fridge and to check on her pets. The latter is shared by the FBI – “you can tell, we’re all dog people!” – which is one of the most vivid, stranger-than-fiction moments in the transcript.

Some of the details get absurd: an “unknown male” agent interjecting on the interrogation to ask, oddly, “Do you have a toothpick?”; a random moment where an unseen agent is overheard asking, “Is this a room?”, which became the title of the play; a conversational reference to a popular article on the private NSA newsfeed “about the miniature ponies”; not to mention the fact an NSA-affiliated office blasts Fox News at their workers.

“I’m not too big on furniture,” says Winner at one point, which explains why her eventual interview takes place in an eerily empty back room, but also delivers the kind of peculiar character trait it’s hard to imagine a screenwriter inventing. These details add up to reveal a human portrait, with Sweeney revelling in a dressed-down role whose internal conflicts and complexities show the acting mettle that was always beneath her bombshell reputation.

Winner is a yoga instructor who owns a hot pink AR-15 assault rifle; a Farsi and Pashto translator who sketches characters from 1984 Ghibli anime Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in her work notebook and sticks fluorescent Post-it notes throughout her much-referenced copy of the Quran. She’s a fitness maven and Instagram enthusiast who watches Afghan drone feeds at work and describes herself as having “resting bitch face” while under interrogation.

Some of her characteristics meet with affirming nods of male approval: her language skills, military service, powerlifting PBs. Conversation is made about rescue dogs, fat pets, CrossFit, box jumps, the neighbourhood. Sometimes the words seem loaded with unintentional meaning – “Is she destructive at all when you leave her alone?” asks Garrick of Winner’s dog – but mostly it’s just polite chit-chat, the awkward preamble to the point of the FBI’s visit.

Garrick is a distinctive figure, too: desperate to be liked (“I don’t think you are, you know, a big bad master spy, okay”), constantly clearing his throat, making jokes that fall dead. He’s forever fumbling over his words: the interview transcript preserves his halting speech (“And you kept it through-through the. Did you – wh – I guess when you left – uh – left the Air Force, you kept. When did you lea – ”) and comically indirect questioning (“Have you ever inadvertently, either by accident or-or intentionally or whatever, gone outside ... your need-to-know on items?”).

One of the recurring flourishes in Reality is the typing out of the verbatim transcription, re-creating the blurred and slanted text of a faxed document. Soundwaves ripple across the screen, summoning the recording. When redacted text appears, sound is obliterated by distorted feedback. In the most fantastical gesture, Winner herself disappears with a pixelated flicker into the digital ether when speaking redacted words, her momentary absence from this recording of “reality” unverified and thus unreal.

Satter often imprisons her lead in close-ups that either remain static or slowly press in, her frames evoking the same sense of patriarchal menace as Kitty Green’s 2019 masterwork, The Assistant. At the climax, we finally step into transient moments of POV, flights of fancy or dissociation that crack the otherwise controlled depiction.

Another form of visual flourish is the insertion of photographs of the real-life Winner that relate to the interrogation, drawn from FBI sources or her Instagram feed. Often when pictures of real-life subjects are shown in based-on-a-true-story movies – usually right before the end credits – it can feel like a boast, a way of showing off how well they cast roles or re-created past hairstyles and outfits. Here it has a higher purpose, further blurring the lines between documentary and drama.

These snapshots, and some epilogue snippets of news reports about Winner’s eventual arrest, trial, detainment and imprisonment, are the sole instances where Reality goes beyond the minute-by-minute transcript. The news reports aren’t extraneous exposition either but character motivation. Near the end of the film, Winner says she “wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything”: she just wanted the facts to no longer be contested by the yelling “news network” talking heads that bombarded her when she was trying to work.

The brief, on-the-record evocation of Snowden connects to the otherwise unspoken subtext of Reality: the increasing persecution of whistleblowers in the US since the Obama presidency. Beyond that is the untold story of the carelessness, or even complicity, of the news website The Intercept in the FBI’s tracing of the leaked document to Winner.

The true power of Reality lies in how all of that exists outside its frame. Satter hasn’t attempted to create a grand saga, spanning years and shifting viewpoints. Instead, the hyper-specific focus of this work of verbatim re-creation makes it profound, gripping and deeply unsettling.

Reality is showing in selected Australian cinemas this week.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Keeping it real".

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