Friday 9 June 2023

Enemies of the state: "Reality"

That title looks a little careworn, but Tina Satter's new film
Reality can lay greater claim to it than, say, Matteo Garrone's 2012 satire of Italian influencers. For starters, it's the given name of Satter's real-life heroine: Reality Lee Winner (played here by Sydney Sweeney), a twentysomething translator specialising in Middle Eastern languages, who on the afternoon of June 3, 2017 returned to her Augusta, Georgia home to find two FBI agents in her front yard, keen to question her about a possible mishandling of classified documents. Satter first converted this self-contained encounter into verbatim theatre (2019's off-Broadway piece Is This a Room), using as her text the Agency's largely declassified transcription; now she and co-writer James Paul Dallas reshape it into a film that nonetheless retains an air of verbatim theatre. In this 80-minute précis of a 105-minute back-and-forth, the interrogation of Reality Lee Winner is replayed almost word-for-word, complete with seemingly irrelevant preamble (chiefly about the heroine's many pets) that wouldn't normally wind up in a movie, but is here offered as corroborating detail; also preserved are those deviations, stammers and circumlocutions by which the Feds (represented by Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) wound up to their inquiries. One consequence is the most bizarre, least grabby opening half-hour of the year so far: lots of small talk and standing round on the kerb, very little of note happening on the surface, any immediate drama or tension dialled way down in the mix. Studio readers casting an eye over this script would likely have returned it to its authors with a single, dismissive note: too much reality. (Which would be as fitting an epitaph for the Trump years as any.)

Even here, though, Reality invites study as an example of how much information a movie can itself pass on without really seeming to strain. Well before the agents usher Reality inside - and into the unfurnished space that functions as a surrogate interview room, a limbo between the domestic and carceral - we've found out not just about Reality's pets, but her stash of guns, and even her weekly Crossfit class. Some of this the Feds evidently knew in advance; some of it they only discovered on the day, as we do. Those who aren't 100% familiar with this case's particulars - anyone who skirted America's internal intrigues between 2016 and 2020, on the grounds investigating might mean having to hear a certain ex-President's voice again - will find a prickly tension beginning to rise. Reality Winner, it's clear, is in big trouble; but one of the many questions Satter raises is how a young woman with a Pokémon duvet and a Hello Kitty phone case could ever have found herself near classified material. Sometime TV It girl Sweeney (Euphoria, The White Lotus) makes Reality a smart cookie, obscuring her intelligence with a thin toplayer of disarming goofiness; this is duly abraded by her interrogators before they start to make her crumble. It's clever casting on Satter's part that neither Hamilton nor Davis present as clear Trump shills. Yet their characters remain weapons of the state, pointed squarely at an individual who seems far from an urgent national threat. It's no more than a dynamically reframed anecdote, but it remains a telling one, clocking that for just over the length of a football match on a sunny afternoon in June 2017, a blandly neutral domestic space witnessed a form of asymmetrical warfare, and a perversion of priorities not uncharacteristic of the moment Satter's film effectively describes and crystallises. The FBI, under Trump, could have pursued those responsible for Russian interference in the 2016 election. Instead, they went after a girl - and, not coincidentally, the girl who helped make that interference a matter of public record. Is that reality enough for you?

Reality is now playing in selected cinemas.

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