Have you ever walked into a shop, just to kill time, and then walk out before a thought stops you in your tracks: “I should buy something so that they don’t think I’m stealing!”. An irrationally strange thought that befalls us all and the sheer number of packets of chewing gum that this reviewer has bought for that very reason is ample evidence enough for its prevalence. Watching Reality gives you that exact same feeling… however, there isn’t enough chewing gum in the world to put your mind to rest.
Reality, directed by Tina Satter, tells the story of Reality Winner, whose very name should bring an oxymoronic warning to any expectant parents juggling baby names. Reality is employed by the NSA as a translator whilst hoping to be deployed outside of the United States to utilise her linguistic skills more appropriately. As the film opens, she sits at her desk whilst a television shows a constant cycle of Fox News broadcasts. Soon, time jumps ahead and, upon arriving home after picking up groceries, she is approached by two men whose eerie expressions should be reason enough to be nervous. When they identify themselves as FBI agents, however, a sense of tension accelerates through proceedings.
A message is conveyed to audiences that the dialogue throughout Reality is taken verbatim from an audio recording transcript via the FBI. Viewers will immediately recognise the fact that when a character speaks here, it is almost unintentionally deadpan in how it is delivered. Characters stumble over words, attempt to crack jokes, even discuss the behaviour of a pet dog in such a humdrum way that one almost forgets the tension simmering throughout. If information is redacted, characters momentarily vanish from the screen. Reality is instructed on how this operation will work when two cars of additional FBI agents show up and begin searching her house. She is asked banal questions and seemingly distracted by small talk so that the officers can proceed with their mission. It is only when the two leading officers ask to speak somewhere privately do things go from nonchalance to panic-inducing terror.
Sydney Sweeney plays the titular Reality in a way that should be marvelled at. Her stock continues to rise. Reality allows her to take an extremely complex role and make it a wonder. Audiences put themselves in her shoes as she is grilled by two men who treat her own home as an interrogation room. A spare room that Reality has never liked stands in for the cold and fluorescent light ridden office. Here, away from her comfort zone is where the film grips you without release. Viewers feel both sides have something to hide. The officers’ repetition of holding a warrant and unwillingness to remind Reality of her rights speaks of sinister foresight.
Reality, on the other hand, is stoic in her conversation. She answers their questions with a genuine tone and shows no reason to feel anything but co-operative. At the same time, Sweeney gives a mesmerising facial performance, where every breath and every glance can be interpreted as something existing behind a façade. Likewise, the two officers seem to be directing Reality towards a well-worn path in their experience within the job, but there is no pretence of clichéd flourishes here. The officer who stumbles over his words may already know the information that Reality could be hiding. The audience is put in the place of a woman who may be about to have her entire life changed utterly, and all the while desperately reaching for that chewing gum.
Reality is a triumph of a film that deserves plaudits for its incredible handling of an extraordinary situation. Satter and Sweeney combine to tell a story that the world needs to hear. The timing of it really couldn’t have been better because as current news dictates, whether you’re a linguistic translator working for the NSA, or a former President of the United States, classified documents can be a serious headache. The story of Reality is a fascinating insight into how the world can view someone who seeks to do their duty, but it also paints an interesting portrait of how a hero in one person’s eyes, can be a something else entirely in another’s. A smoking gun can be a bona fide piece of evidence, or something that distracts from what one side wants you to think. Reality simply wants you to see it for yourself.