' ' Cinema Romantico: Reality

Monday, July 10, 2023


Named for its real-life subject, Reality Winner, the 25-year-old U.S. Air Force cadet turned NSA translator who in June 2017 leaked evidence of Russia interfering in the 2016 U.S. election, there is a delicious double meaning to this movie’s title, “Reality,” epitomized in how it lops off her surname, leaving just the semi-daffy yet no less revealing given one. Director and writer Tina Satter adapted this HBO original movie from her stage play in which she culled the dialogue strictly from the FBI’s recording of their agents interrogating Winner outside and inside her Augusta, Georgia home. This suggests a transcription of reality, though in adhering exactly to the record, Satter demonstrates how reality is anything but, mining the surface for various hidden meanings, a casual conversation so tinged with menace that a sunny summer evening turns threatening with nary a cloud in the sky. From what I have read, the play, which I have not seen, did that too, but Satter has foregone merely filming a play to make a full-fledged movie, deploying all the tools of the cinematic medium to render an extraordinary real-time dramatic thriller of reality slowly settling. 

The opening shot is a high-angled one of Reality (Sydney Sweeney) at her work desk with televisions turned to cable news suspended above, making it seem for all the world like she’s drowning in disinformation and foreshadowing many such shots of the camera tilted down on its main character. If in sticking to the real-life script Satter and her co-writer James Paul Dallas play coy with the precise politics of Winner, these recurring images arouse a distinct sense of powerlessness in concert with the FBI agents who knock on her car door and eventually enter her home. All the more so because all these government men are just that, men, the high angles painting Reality as a small tree virtually lost in a forest of tall, burly, unforgiving ones. 

The two agents in charge are Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (March├ínt Davis), both of whom repeatedly mention a warrant as a neighbor who has mostly stopped by to gossip might mention his or her offering of baked goods, conspicuously avoid reciting Miranda Rights before not so much grinding her down into confessing transmitting national security secrets as casually getting her to open up. The duo plays something less like good cop, bad cop than good cop, good cop, genially discussing her pets and workout regimen, regular conversation ultimately provoking a tense disconnection between their subtle probing for any signs of danger and assorted images of black SUVs pulling up and yellow crime tape being unspooled in the background. In this way, the stylistic device of redactions in the FBI script being accounted for through sudden skips in the film underlines the eerie sensation of reality becoming unmoored while occasional POV shots of Reality briefly focusing on various ephemera, like a kid’s toy truck or the leaves in the trees, become the snapshots of everyday life that just happen to stick in your mind at the moment your life is changing. 

Upon moving inside, the two agents and Reality occupy a little low-ceilinged unadorned room in the back of her home. It suggests Orson Welles’s “The Trial,” though its presentation is far less surreal, Satter eschewing shadowy mood lighting for natural light instead, the sun slowly setting outside underscoring the gallows sensation. The blocking and editing of the conversation, meanwhile, as Garrick and Taylor let Reality hem and haw while building toward the ultimate confrontation, is as dynamic as it is halting, cultivating a rhythm that is jarringly plainspoken. The camera looks down on her and up at them, but it goes much further than that, showing them far away and then up close, mirroring the rhythm of the questioning and its escalating intensity, the camera drifting closer and closer to Reality the longer it goes. You know how it ends, but the way the sequence is cut, it doesn’t feel like a surprise, exactly, just an invisible noose, tightening, and tightening.

As Garrick, Hamilton takes his cues from that Kohl’s Clearance Rack blue and yellow lilac short-sleeve button-down he sports, playing an FBI interrogator in the key of a dad, echoed in his kind voice, where when the character inquires after her school background really comes across intrigued. And even when Garrick seizes on an inconsistency in her responses, Hamilton might speed up his intonation to underline the trap he’s sprung, yet never quite hardens his voice, still curiously friendly, epitomizing a truly insidious performance that you almost don’t realize has tricked you until it’s too late. If Hamilton’s turn is measured in how he ropes you in, Sweeney’s performance is equally measured in how she both projects an inner panic and an outer calm, and how gradually the former overwhelms the latter, which Sweeney never evinces through any kind of traditional hysterics, just a quiet understanding of how a movie performance works in concert with the camera, a searing manifestation of someone screaming on the inside.

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