Friday, June 02, 2023

Reality – questions between the lines of a recreated FBI interview with a suspected leaker of secrets (Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 8 June)

A translator skilled in Farsi, Dari and Pashto pulls into the driveway of her Augusta bungalow, returning home from a trip to the shops. Two men greet her, FBI agents who say they have a search warrant and would like to ask her some questions. She’d served in the US Air Force and is now working for an outside agency who provide language services for the NSA. She agrees to talk and more agents park up and begin to secure her property as she worries about the perishables in her car and the pets inside her home.

This isn’t a fictional scenario, but a recreation of what really happened to 25-year-old Reality Winner on 3 June 2017. The FBI audio-recorded the initial voluntary interview at her home, and the transcript forms the basis of Tina Satter’s 83-minute film, Reality.

It’s deliberately undramatic, an awkward game of cat and mouse that carries on until near the end. The two agents (played Wallace Taylor and Marchánt Davis), tall middle-aged men, tower over the shorter younger woman. They bury passive aggressive questions in the middle of chit chat about her man-hating dog and the brute of a cat who is hiding under her bed but might escape outside if they leave the door open. The conversation pivot on a dime, from trading insipid anecdotes about CrossFit injuries to asking whether she’s been reading documents on the NSA intranet that are outside her subject area.

If the dialogue seems stilted, the film makers demonstrate using the FBI recording that the intonation of the original interview was wooden. If the actors playing agents seem to be hesitant about spitting out what crime Reality is alleged to have committed, that’s because the original FBI agents were clearly deliberately prevaricating, creating space for their suspect to self-incriminate. While our collective understanding of Reality’s situation unfolds in a room devoid of furniture, a larger team are combing the rest of her house in case there’s unexpectedly evidence of further wrongdoing that the interrogators have no clue about.

Sydney Sweeney plays Reality Winner as cool under pressure. There are no histrionics. She blocks and evade questions without emotion. Has her character’s fitness regime somehow prepared her to be able to control her heartbeat and manage her blood pressure? Or maybe it’s the shock of being confronted? Sweeney’s skill is in leaving the answers to those questions very ambiguous.

We realise even before the dialogue tells us that Reality Winner is an amateur leaker when held up against a world champion of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. A neat visual device is used when fragments of the transcript have been redacted. Despite the linear storytelling, it’s pleasing to nearly always find out what detail was suppressed when the information pops up on screen in another form about ten or fifteen minutes later, from news reports or punditry.

Was Reality reminded about having a lawyer present? Why the total absence of women in the FBI search and interview team? (One female agent appears right at the end.) Did anyone read Reality her Miranda rights? How did the FBI manage to identify their suspect and link her to a whistleblowing website before anything had been published online? A documentary format might have added talking heads to articulate some of these questions and oddities you’ll notice appearing in the gaps between the lines of dialogue as the ‘action’ unfolds. The power dynamics inside and outside the room are intriguing to ponder. So too are thoughts about who the real victims are in this crime.

As you watch the film, you can make your mind up about the ethics of Reality Winner action. By the conclusion, you’ll understand that the previously secret information was quickly utilised in a positive manner by elected representatives. You’ll read on screen what the consequences were for Reality. And you’ll hear talking heads on a Fox News show worry more about the dangerous people lurking within US intelligence communities than the foreign state actors trying to interfere with democratic processes.

The film Reality is adapted from Tina Satter’s stage play. Verbatim scripts can be very hit and miss. In this case, the sterile and mundane presentation adds power to the film and gives the audience space to do their homework.

A very different treatment of the same story should hit cinema screens over the next year. Filming of a black comedy, Winner, directed by Susanna Fogel, wrapped before Christmas. As companion pieces go, the styles could hardly be more different, and it’ll be fascinating to compare and contrast the storytelling techniques when it is released.

In the meantime, Reality is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 8 June.


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