It is almost parodically apt that the first whistle-blower of the Trump era should be named Reality Winner. But Reality genuinely is the birth name of the government contractor and translator who reached her breaking point with the firing of James Comey and leaked an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 US elections to the news website The Intercept which would later be read into evidence on the Senate floor.

Writer/director Tina Satter has recreated the interrogation of Reality in a tightly coiled and meticulously paced thriller; adapted from her 2019 stage play and lifted directly from the FBI’s own transcript. Playing out in Winner’s house and garden, in bright daylight, the film’s deceptively plodding start belies its sinister undertow meaning the audience is already trapped in the serpentine loops of its narrative before we understand that the tension is crushing us.

Reality (Sydney Sweeney) returns home from grocery shopping to find FBI agents waiting on her driveway. Initially approached by the reassuring and seemingly apologetic Agent Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Agent Taylor (Marchánt Davis) and appearing bemused but compliant, Reality’s concerns grow as an increasing number of armed personnel appear and it becomes evident that this is no standard security follow-up.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the early stages of the interrogation may be confusing. The only hint we have received about the potential subject matter came from the Fox News updates blaring around Winner’s office in the opening seconds, heralding the FBI director’s downfall. In common with the transcript itself, some portions of the conversation are redacted; with pink pixels and white noise interrupting the conversation’s flow.

Reality and Agent Garrick dance around the reasons for the FBI’s interest in the young woman and she is compliant, if limited, in her replies. Agents Taylor and Garrick don’t quite engage in good cop/bad cop but Taylor is perceptibly more friendly and interested in Reality’s world while Garrick remains parental in his manner. Reality is more preoccupied with the wellbeing of her pets and the inadequacy of her home, she appears to be an open book.

Thanks to the subtlety of cinematographer Paul Yee, Reality’s bright bungalow begins to feel more claustrophobic as those coils ratchet and Reality’s friendly demeanour flickers with almost imperceptible microexpressions of irritation, fear, anger and concern. The agents know a lot about her, her habits, the trajectory of her career, even the colour of her AR-15 and suddenly the mosquito trapped in the back room with her seems to stand a better chance of getting free.

The agitation of Nathan Micay’s score and the drip-drip build of Ryan Billia’s sound design combine with Satter’s intuitive direction to capture the delicacy with which Sweeney gradually lets Reality’s guileless poker face slip to show her cards, for a slow reveal that is no less staggering than a jumpscare would be in any other thriller. The facts shared before the credits close are inevitable but they still sting. Reality is a masterclass in filmmaking.

Reality – in UK & Irish cinemas Now

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Emily Breen began writing for HeyUGuys in 2009. She favours pretzels over popcorn and rarely watches trailers as she is working hard to overcome a compulsion to ‘solve’ plots. Her trusty top five films are: Betty Blue, The Red Shoes, The Princess Bride, The Age of Innocence and The Philadelphia Story. She is troubled by people who think Tom Hanks was in The Philadelphia Story and by other human beings existing when she is at the cinema.
reality-review-2Reality is a masterclass in filmmaking from Tina Satter, compounded by a sterling lead performance from Sydney Sweeney.