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Review: Standing her ground in tense docudrama, Reality Winner discovers she’s in quicksand

Sydney Sweeney in the movie "Reality."
(HBO)
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Thanks to the ubiquity of cop shows and crime stories, we’ve all seen a million taut interactions between law enforcement and interviewees, often portrayed as a game where the participants know the stakes, cards are held close, and variations in temperament and psychology abound.

But you’ve never seen that exchange brought to life the way playwright-turned-filmmaker Tina Satter does with unnerving humidity and deadpan expressionism in her disorientingly tense feature debut “Reality.” That’s in large part because she’s dramatizing in near-real time an authentic FBI transcript — what occurred between a pair of calculatingly patient male agents and their unsuspecting target of June 3, 2017: former Air Force linguist Reality Winner, played with captivating, heartbreaking resilience by Sydney Sweeney.

Winner, 25 at the time and working as an National Security Agency contractor in Augusta, Ga., would make headlines as the first person charged by President Trump’s Justice Department under the Espionage Act for leaking a government report to the media, in this case evidence of Russian interference in U.S. elections to the Intercept. She was sentenced to prison for five years and released after three for good behavior.

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When the feds roll up to her boxy corner house in a leafy suburb, Winner is outside in cutoff jean shorts, a white button-down shirt, and unlaced yellow Converse. Her vibe is that of a weekend afternoon interrupted, to be briefly endured, perhaps, as agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis) stand near her like unassuming herd animals, making small talk while a team of men prepares to search her home. Winner shows concern for the near-future status of her dog and cat, which the agents sympathize with — they’re all pet people — as they gently inquire where inside they can have a conversation.

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These are dense minutes, weirdly polite and surreal, but once these three players move to an unused utility room devoid of furniture, we soon realize “Reality” won’t be constrained by the play-by-play of a just-the-facts-ma’am procedural, or conversely by foregrounding itself as a politically driven account about a whistleblower wronged by a venal, shady administration. Rather, Satter is after a pungently atmospheric, beat-by-beat account of someone losing their freedom over the course of an hour and change, played out in ums and ers, banal chitchat, thick pauses and the smiling, situational menace of an authority never not confident about the outcome.

Satter, who with James Paul Dallas adapted her 2019 play “Is This a Room,” does occasionally break up her experiment in verbatim docudrama with cutaways and effects, and they all work keenly to exacerbate either the tension or the bizarreness. Time stamps and inserts of the transcript and .wav file serve to remind us that this very much happened, as do flashes of real photos and social media posts, evidence of millennial ordinariness, but also the colored-in specificity of Winner’s life: That she owned a pink AR-15 and lived for CrossFit competitions. And when the interview gets to the meat of the accusation — considered sensitive enough in the transcript to be blackened-over (despite it having been published by the Intercept) — actors briefly disappear from the frame, Satter’s tartly funny rendering of redacted speech.

There’s nothing missing, however, from Sweeney’s fermata of a performance, naturalistic and forensic, her reality/Reality a swirl of hopeful obfuscations eventually coming to grips with the fact that she’s not in some mucky puddle she can step out of — she’s in quicksand. But she won’t go without defending herself, without a piece of context, a sense of who she is beyond pets, languages, guns and weights, and where she saw the country going.

As her life up till then closes in a day-lit, stark room, the impact of Satter’s deceptively heavy depiction of the individual against the state crystallizes. “Reality” reaches beyond Winner’s experience on one momentous Saturday afternoon to prod us all into contemplating our own relationship to actions over words, and the powerfully wielded consequences that keep many — but thankfully, not all of us — from doing nothing.

'Reality'

Rating: TV-MA

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing: May 29, 10 p.m., HBO; also available on Max

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