Released in the same week that a former President admitted to retaining classified documents after leaving office, HBO’s original film Reality could not arrive more urgently. It is urgency, in fact, that powers the film on multiple fronts for the entirety of its brisk 80-minute runtime. The writing is taut and concise, the performances spring-loaded, all culminating in a sweaty-palm powder keg of a film – the debut feature from playwright and first-time feature director Tina Satter, who is adapting her 2019 play, Is This A Room? – a verbatim staging of Reality Winner’s 2017 FBI interrogation.
In the hot seat is HBO it-girl Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria, The White Lotus) who delivers the first definitive breakout performance of 2023 as the ex-Air Force, now subcontracted linguist. Given that the entire film takes place within the confines of one invasive setting, it is full credit to Sweeney that she is able to give so much in such a small space of time and place. The tiers of emotion and layer revelation on display are continuously arresting and as white-knuckle as any balls-to-the-wall thriller.
Spoiling nothing on account of the film being a word-for-word transcription of a long-since publicised real-world event, the film exists, not entirely in real-time, within the duration of the interrogation of the since incarcerated Reality Winner at her home in 2017. It was done so by a pair of FBI agents investigating the leak of classified NSA documentation pertaining to the alleged influence of Russian hackers on the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. Experimental in its cinematic delivery, Satter begins with the commencement of the FBI’s audio recording of their encounter with Winner and concludes with the recording being ended. The hour and a half or so in between is now rooted in American history as a turnkey event, though not one that will have previously been regarded as such.
And it’s not just Sweeney that cruises through the gears from ignorant to innocent and out the other inevitable end. The role of the lead interrogator played by Josh Hamilton is equally measured in the stages of its evolution. He knows the truth as well as the outcome before they even pull up outside her house. It’s heart-pounding, then, to witness genuine FBI unpicking techniques applied as they slowly grind her down to admission.
Films like this are a rare little gem – raw and intimate while displaying a range of narrative and cinematic flair.
Reality is streaming now on MAX.