Reality is not about what Reality Winner did; it's about something else entirely

More out of curiosity than interest, I watched Reality on HBO Max. I assumed it was just a biopic about Reality Winner, a young woman in the Air Force who did intel translations of Afghani and Iranian documents and was convicted of leaking some of those documents. I was also curious why they cast superhottie Sydney Sweeney, who I only know as a TV actress from some salacious show about troubled teens or something. I’m old and out of touch with that stuff, so all I knew was that she was probably too young and attractive to be talented.

So I start watching this biopic and the first thing that’s obvious is that this is not a biopic. It begins with FBI officers coming to her door when she has no concept that she’s been busted. What follows is basically a realtime account of what it’s like to have your life suddenly, inexorably, and irrevocably upended by federal authorities pursuing abso-fucking-lutely serious life-altering charges against you.

Again, this is realtime, from the period she comes home from the grocery store to find a couple of affable but vaguely terrifying men waiting to talk to her, to the credits rolling approximately 90 realtime minutes later. It features moments like this, where the agents are holding her outside her Texas house while they serve the warrant and she has nothing to do but hangfire on the sidewalk and notice this across the street:

I love the absurdity of that shot, as well as how it’s utterly appropriate for the moment in time being presented.

What’s more, the dialogue is entirely the transcript of the arrest. Which is notable because Winner apparently waived her right to an attorney and did that thing you’re not supposed to do: talked to the cops! This is not a written movie, as near as I can tell; it’s a transcribed movie, down to the umms and uhhs and natural speech patterns*. I’m not the least bit surprised that Josh Hamilton and the character actors playing the agents can pull it off. Hamilton’s character’s insipid attempts to make Reality feel at ease are a masterclass in genuine and unintentional creepiness (probably an actual police technique!), whereas his partners, played by the imposing and borderline menacing Merchant Davis and the shlubby but nevertheless imposing Benny Elledge flit about in the margins, doing their work and lending plenty of “bad cop” touches to the proceedings.

But really it’s Sweeney who won me over. She is indeed gorgeous, and I underestimated her for it. She does a great job channeling a sense of tamped down panic, which eventually bleeds out into deflated resignation. It’s an extremely sympathetic portrait of Reality Winner because it’s only about this single instance in the young woman’s life, and all the context has been sheared away, leaving only the moment of her arrest. Whatever Winner did, whoever she was, and whatever became of her, in the movie Reality, she is a confused young woman who’s made a horrible mistake, and Sweeney agonizingly captures that slow realization that her life as she knew it is about to end.

The movie doesn’t offer any opinion on what Winner did, it’s not the least bit interested in her motives, or her sexual identity**, and it couldn’t care less about the eventual charges and overarching legal situation. Instead, it wants to show you in excruciating detail what it’s like at the precise moment the federal government falls onto your life like a ton of bricks. It’s chilling, compelling, and memorable.



* Ahh, it turns out Reality is an adaptation of a stage play famously based on the arrest transcript! Very much like Alpha Bravo Romeo Charlie Victor Romeo (thanks to @JonRowe for the correction), another stage play taken from the transcripts of airline cockpits dealing with crises, many of which were fatal. These are basically “fly on the wall” recreations of terrible moments when something mundane becomes an existential crisis.

** EDIT: Doh, I was confusing Reality Winner with Chelsea Manning, which is of course why there was nothing about Winner’s sexual identity.

This should become a whole genre where traitorous leakers and Jan 6th freaks get arrested and you get to laugh at the stupid shit they say and the outhouses they live in and their Trump sweatshirts.

Well, shoot. I really wasn’t that interested before, Tom, but I guess I may have to give this a watch now.

Charlie Victor Romeo (Cockpit Voice Recorder, or CVR)

Which is a terrifying watch.

Sweeny is good in Nocturne too. It’s just that Nocturne was really only ok (it has promise, but the supernatural stuff got in the way of what was actually a really interesting relationship between two talented musician siblings, one of whom seems to have everything a gal could want and is likely Juilliard bound and the other of whom lives in her shadow). I’ve been curious about this one ever since hearing about the play and the use of the actual transcripts.

Well, Charlie Victor Romeo is some of the most compelling video you’ll ever see, so if it is being mentioned in the same breath as this, it’s probably great.

Well, hello stranger. I was just listening to your talk with Lex Fridman the other day.

Who knows if this was an accurate detail or made up for the movie, but I loved seeing little Nausicaä stickers and magnets around Reality’s house. There were certainly not many female roles in this movie. There was the title character, of course, but she was fucked by the U.S. Government before she even said “hi” to the FBI agents. There was the nameless and dialogueless FBI agent that patted her down and slapped the cuffs on at the very end. And there was the poor rescue dog who was terrified of men who spent the bulk of the movie caged in the backyard.

But maybe Reality, an Air Force vet, CrossFit enthusiast, and translator, willing to stand up to the world’s Great Powers and also Trump and Fox News, was inspired by the great Miyazaki movie and even better Miyazaki manga to illuminate truth to the world. Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind features the title character – a prodigy soaring through the air, standing as a moral compass against corrupt empires, finding more in common with monster insects than enemy soldiers, and selflessly willing to sacrifice herself on behalf of a better world in the future.

I can’t help but think that was a subtle but conscious decision by the production design team to draw parallels between the fictional character and the Reality character, or at least her aspirations.

Not sure what was up with the snail.

What a great catch, @Djscman! You make me wish I knew Miyazaki better.

The glacially slow and blind advancement of justice?

That’s all I got.