Tina Satter’s Reality is a film adaptation of her 2019 play, Is This Is A Room, which was itself an adaptation of the interrogation of Reality Winner, the U.S. Air Force veteran and former NSA translator who, in 2018, was sentenced to a five-year prison term for releasing classified information pertaining to Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential elections. Adaptation is perhaps not the right word for these two texts, however, since they are both comprised, in their entirety, of the official FBI transcripts of Reality’s interrogation, along with a few other found sources, primarily news broadcasts. In film form, we follow Reality, played here by Sydney Sweeney, as she arrives home from work to find a FBI team headed by Agents Justin C. Garrick, played by Justin Hamilton, and R. Wallace Taylor, played by Marchant Davis. Over the next hour and a quarter, the agents go from politely roping off the house, and expressing their hope that this will be a misunderstanding, to grilling Reality about a document that has been leaked to The Intercept, and that appears to be linked to her activity.
What ensues feels like a spiritual sequel to Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, and the next stage in whistleblowing, and documenting whistleblowing after Edward Snowden. Unlike in Poitras’ film, let alone Oliver Stone’s fictional adaptation, there is no documentary distance from the act of whistleblowing any more – not a single word in the film that is not part of the recorded American public sphere. Satter periodically reminds us that her script is in fact a transcript, whether by returning to the transcript itself, along with the .wav file of the recording, ot through intertitles signposting how far into this recording we have progressed. Along the way, we receive occasional images from Reality’s actual Instagram account, but these tend to play as so many forensic objects that are part and parcel of the FBI investigation, every bit as engrained in the official record as the recording itself. Apart from these interludes, the film unfolds in its entirety around what was actually said by the main parties present on the day.
The result is a kind of documentary hyperreality that paradoxically shrouds the intentions of the FBI agents in an eerie opacity. To some extent, this is partly a matter of the transcript itself. As a contract linguist who speaks several languages, Reality is aware that meaning is never transparent, especially in English, observing at one point that “English is hard,” even as a native speaker. However, the veracity of the transcript also imbues the non-verbal qualia of the film with a looming, inscrutable, prescience. All the small cinephilic details that gives film its texture, above and beyond narrative, now turn into so many harbingers of a doom that the transcript won’t quite disclose, particularly the recurring images of wind blowing through trees that continually draw Reality’s eyes away from the early stages of the interrogation. Every utterance feels unreadable, and therefore paranoid, in this environment, meaning that only animals are capable of any spontaneous expression. In fact, much of the tension is driven by the movement of animals, whose spontaneity serves to reiterate just how constrained all the human interaction feels, despite a veneer of polite procedural consent. Reality’s first job, when the FBI arrives, is to secure her dog in the backyard, and her most frantic gesture is dashing back to make sure the cat hasn’t escaped, the closest she comes to a genuine escape attempt. Later, at the peak of the interrogation, her eyes, and the camera, continually return to a snail moving up the wall of her back room – at a sluggish pace to be sure, and almost indiscernible to the naked eye, but infinitely freer and more motile than she is at this stage.
This all produces an almost Lynchian intensified normality, and an unusual rhythm whereby the most suspenseful part of the film actually comes at the beginning, when the FBI arrive, and ask Reality to wait outside her house, before the interrogation proper gets underway. During these endless minutes, Reality and Agent Garrick converse about CrossFits, pets and property prices in her neighbourhood of Augusta, Georgia – casual topics, discussed with casual body language, which makes it eerier that Garrick always ensures that he is standing between Reality and her house. Uncannily, the dialogue feels remarkably stilted here, even or especially as its entirely naturalistic. At times, it reminded me of the conversational style of Succession – all blandishments and platitudes, verbal tics and gestures more than speech, an endless string of ums and ahs that suggests and sanitises an enormous underlying violence.
That, of course, reflects the uncanniest aspect of Reality – namely, that the interrogation was recorded for precisely this kind of transparent disclosure, which makes it doubly eerie to see it dramatised in this fashion. Everything exudes a strange bathos and quietness, as if the FBI agents have deliberately conducted the interrogation so that it is available for dramatisation but also resists dramatisation. It’s like witnessing a new era of intimidation that has pre-empted the lesson of George Floyd, and knows how to play dirty with suspects in the plain sight of surveillance – that is, a mode of coercion that subsists on ultra-politeness, whether in the FBI agents’ extravagant offers to get Reality a seat, to escort her to the bathroom, and get her a glass of water, or with their reassurances that she doesn’t seem the terrorist type.
In other words, watching Reality is like witnessing an atrocity that is being prepared for scrutiny by posterity, or an act of torture in which all the subsequent sanitary and PR measures have simply been built into the process. Satter starts by including the original redactions in the transcript, whether through bleeps in the dialogue, or moments when Reality briefly disappears, but these gradually vanish as the interrogation proceeds, as if the sheer sanitary proceduralism of the agents is more powerful than any physical act of redaction. They traffic above all in a reassuring illusion of free speech and democratic process, ushering Reality into her back room for her own comfort, and assuring her that “this is a podium,” only to treat it like a domesticated black ops site. The original title of Satter’s play, Is This a Room, reflects that transition, but Reality works better for the film, since the addition of a camera embeds the audience directly into the surveillance economy that the FBI agents have learned to move within. By the closing moments, the film has almost entirely divested itself of tension, and Reality’s treatment (and the crimes she disclosed) have been all but sanitised. In that convergence lies the uncanny power of Reality, along with a divergence of surveillance and transparency that insists that being able to see more doesn’t make it any harder for those in power to refrain from being seen. In the found footage that closes the film, a news reporter speculates that Reality’s (unprecedented) five year sentence was designed to have a “chilling effect” – and that chilling effect is the final note of Reality too, which starts out with a fantasy of total transparency, and ends with an eerily clinical opacity.