The film’s reliance on accuracy leaves little room for artistry.
The immediate issue with Tina Slatter’s debut feature, Reality, is how disengaging it is as a movie. A direct adaptation from Slatter’s theatrical piece Is This a Room, the conceptual background is probably the more interesting part. That show took the recorded transcript of FBI agents and former veteran and NSA translator Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney) about Winner’s leaking of classified information on Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election and used it as a verbatim dialogue. Everything uttered on the tape is replicated almost exactly in the play and, now, the film. The stutters, pauses, coughing, dog barking, doors opening. Everything. Recreated in minute detail.
There is a lot of obsession with reality in cinema today, both in terms of narrative and visuals. Considerations of whether something is accurate or can look, feel, or sound a certain way in the real world often takes precedence over the freedoms of an artistic vision. But in Slatter’s case, there is a deliberateness to this militant commitment to the truth. It directly relates to the concerns at hand.
The foundational ideologies that motivated Reality Winner’s actions and the political culture that erupted under the Trump administration are under the lens. There is a direct line drawn here between the ‘fake news’ and lies spouted by Trump and the adherence to relaying facts and information as is, with no interference in the production of this movie. While that may be catnip to a certain professional class of liberal media critics, it doesn’t exactly make for an interesting or gripping procedural.
Films often exaggerate or temporarily manipulate FBI interrogations to both accelerate the pace of storytelling and develop suspense via amplified combativeness. Slatter may have found reading the transcript compelling on its own, but it’s ultimately a standard operational interrogation. There’s a lot of stalling and ad hoc questioning. When it does get down to the nitty-gritty, the action deflates instead of peeking. After all, Winner is very cooperative. She quite literally insists, “I’m not trying to be a Snowden or anything.”
Slatter’s direction uses basic methods of creating claustrophobia. For instance, the camera slowly zooms in on Sweeney’s face as she’s backed into a corner. Reality also turns to a hazy high exposure sheen to convey disorientation as conversations turn more revealing. Perhaps the most surreal and effective moment of storytelling comes unintentionally during a quick sequence that gives Slattery’s source material its title. In the middle of a very tight confessional portion of the interrogation, a random agent creaks open the door and asks, “Is this a room? Is that a room?” It’s such an abrupt and strange interjection. It feels like something leaking through a tear in our dimension.
It’s one thing to commit to the transcript as a source, especially as Slatter intends it. However, adapting a play to film demands the visuals be more engrossing. The composition of on-screen imagery should contribute equally to building tension. It cannot rely entirely on the words.
Unfortunately, Reality is more concerned with getting the diction accurate rather than letting the actors fully embody their characters.
Sweeney is relatively decent in the role. She has a knack for turning her face red and being on the verge of tears in a way that makes the viewer believe her distress. Unfortunately, Reality is more concerned with getting the diction accurate rather than letting the actors fully embody their characters. This limits what the actors can do in these roles. It handcuffs how natural they can feel while navigating the real-life events.
Politically motivated decisions make Reality a well-meaning effort to recreate the interrogation and wrongful arrest of a woman who wanted to reveal the truth. It also creates a dichotomy to the anti-facts era of politics under Trump, drawing them in stark contrast. Artistically, however, the movie limits its ability to engage with the story. Instead, the film creates rules for itself that only strike those who already know the details, particularly those in the media class.
In that sense, Reality’s less a movie about Reality Winner and more about reliving a moment that became a political referendum for some and a near-apocalyptic event for others. Ironically, Winner herself said she will never watch the movie and relive that moment. That’s probably for the best.
Reality obsesses about the truth now on Max.