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26 May 2023

Reality is a chilling, forensic dramatisation of a whistleblower interrogation

Tina Satter’s verbatim treatment of the FBI’s questioning of a young NSA translator is deeply unsettling.

By Ryan Gilbey

Verbatim theatre has been used chiefly to address injustices, or to dramatise front-page stories when the ink has not quite dried. Think of the fatal shooting by police of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 (Stockwell), or the Macpherson Report published after the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence (The Colour of Justice). A compelling verisimilitude is achieved by preserving untidy speech with all its stammers and slip-ups, and the inadvertent “a-ha!” moments concealed in every “um” and “ah”.

Cinema has been slow to embrace the verbatim mode, which is puzzling when the results are as arresting as the 2015 adaptation of London Road, Alecky Blythe’s stage musical about the murders of five sex workers in Ipswich, or Tina Satter’s new film Reality, based on her own play Is This a Room.

The script, by Satter and her co-writer James Paul Dallas, is drawn exclusively from conversations between Reality Winner, a 25-year-old US National Security Agency (NSA) translator, and the FBI agents who turned up at her home in Augusta, Georgia on 3 June 2017, to talk to her “about, uh, possible mishandling of classified information”. Fidelity to those transcripts is flagged throughout the movie: there are cutaways to the soundwaves on the audio files, and to the typed words spoken by the actors. During a period of silence, a corresponding “[pause]” is shown on screen. What should pull us out of the action only intensifies it, placing events simultaneously in an unspooling present and an implacable future.

We know now that Reality Winner – her father gave her the name in the hope that it would be shortened to “Real Winner” – leaked an NSA report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections to the website the Intercept. Satter could scarcely have hoped for a more fitting name for someone who sacrificed her liberty to alert her country to the truth. (She was sentenced to more than five years in federal prison, the longest term handed down for a leak of this kind.)

Reality is played by Sydney Sweeney, the caustic teenager from the first series of The White Lotus, as a child in a young adult’s body. She wears cut-off denim shorts and yellow high tops, has a Pikachu bedspread and Hello Kitty toys, yet keeps three guns hidden around her home, and translates Farsi, Dari and Pashto for a local military contractor.

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Much of the tension arises from the imbalance between this chirpy, headlamp-eyed young woman and the grimly imposing men, including her interrogators Justin (Josh Hamilton) and Wallace (Marchánt Davis), who crowd into her shoebox bungalow and manhandle her dainty possessions like blundering Gullivers. (There isn’t another woman on screen until five minutes before the end of the film.) Satter and her cinematographer Paul Yee are cagey about the dimensions of the nondescript spare room where much of the questioning takes place, so it’s a surprise when a change of angle shows just how low the ceiling is, or reveals a previously hidden mirror. It turns reality – as well as Reality – into a slippery proposition.

The film’s visual vocabulary escalates from wide-shots and mid-shots to close-ups as the truth is, gradually, tweezered out like shrapnel after a gun fight. Satter directs our attention to the choreography of interrogation with its intimidating advances and strategic retreats. It is appropriate that the picture keeps returning to the image of the typed script when what we see involves so much performance on both sides – the protracted small talk, the forced bonhomie.

When the interrogation turns nasty, there is an aching sense that all that preliminary chit-chat was wasted: it was only ever intended to end with Reality whimpering in a corner. Anyone who has seen Eighth Grade will find it unsettling to watch Hamilton, the overprotective father from that movie, frightening a jittery young woman instead of doing his best to console her. Satter has a range of visual effects at her disposal, including a kind of pink pixelated glitch that wipes the actors from the image whenever a redacted phrase is mentioned; it’s as though they’ve fallen through a rip in the space-time continuum.

There are sinister harbingers of Reality’s future incarceration when her dog is placed in a cage in the garden, or a leash is clipped to her cat’s collar and looped around the leg of a dresser. But the film is at its most straightforwardly chilling in its reliance on the spoken word – and its forensic skill in reading between the lines.

“Reality” is in cinemas now

[See also: Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener is inexcusably nasty – and yet I loved it]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation