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Reality (2023 film)

Nothing is particularly surprising in Reality, which takes its name from its main character, Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney) – don’t you just love American names? – which is essentially about yet another American citizen being incarcerated. What Winner did was leak a classified intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Apparently, the Russians had hacked into voter databases in America and harvested email addresses, which were used to send phishing emails. I’ll only work myself up into a furious rant about the criminal (in)justice system if I say any more about the details of what happened to her, and how she ended up in prison, and anyway, Winner has her own Wikipedia page – it’s all there.

The film is an adaptation of a play by Tina Satter (the play is called Is This A Room), and Reality is Satter’s full-length movie directorial debut. The dialogue is almost entirely derived from an FBI transcript, in the public domain, of an audio recording of a visit by FBI agents on 3 June 2017 to Winner’s home. What’s worth noting here is the cinematography. There are certain sections of the transcript that are redacted. Those sections of the audio recording have been deliberately distorted to the point where what is said is entirely indistinct. Alas, it’s too much of a giveaway to even say how the film portrays the redactions, suffice to say it’s creative, and discombobulating, but in a thoughtful way.

I had been warned by one of the leading lights in the Stephen Sondheim Society whilst we were in conversation prior to a performance of the Sondheim musical Gypsy out of town (The Mill at Sonning, on Sonning Island, in South Oxfordshire – nearest rail station: Reading, in Berkshire – no wonder yours truly and other critics have the theatre’s publicist personally escort us by way of a return rail and taxi journey from London Paddington). Reality, I was duly informed, is “hard work” – but having decided to go and see for myself anyway, I don’t feel the same way. Agent Justin C. Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Agent R. Wallace Taylor (Marchánt Davis) were almost at pains, in this reconstruction of events, to maintain civility, each in their own distinct manner. Garrick spoke at length about Winner’s pets, for which arrangements had to be made following her arrest, while Taylor told Winner point blank that in his opinion, she had merely made an error of personal judgement, rather than actively seeking to be disloyal to her country.

There’s a lot in this film, which by its nature has a narrow scope, as an interrogation continues while a search warrant is being enforced, resulting in all sorts of inadvertent interruptions. Unlike a fictional narrative, there are pauses in dialogue because, for instance, Winner would like a glass of tap water, or because she would like to use the bathroom (as the Americans say when they want to take a leak). I wouldn’t have thought I would enjoy watching an FBI interrogation as much as I did – Satter has worked wonders with this riveting tale, which isn’t so much a miscarriage of justice as there’s an admission of guilt, but the punishment is largely believed to be disproportionate to the offence: she was in jail for four years and is on ‘supervised release’ until the end of November 2024. I tried to look up a simple definition of ‘supervised release’ but gave up after a while. As Patrick McClain puts it, “To understand what is involved in supervised release, it is important to understand how parole works in the federal system”. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

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