Film - Reality

Using dialogue taken directly from an FBI transcript of the real-life interrogation, Tina Satter's film Reality, available now on BFI Player, caught the imagination of Marc Nash...

This film blew me away. I knew nothing about it going in. As it was called “Reality” I thought it was about some reality TV winner who was being investigated for having gamed her way to the prize money. Not quite sure why that might involve the FBI, but it turned out this was based on true-life story, was about a woman whistleblower called Reality Winner.

Two FBI men approach the young woman Reality as she pulls up into her drive with the groceries in Augusta Georgia. They flash their badges and bend over backwards not to appear too threatening by their bulk compared to her petite frame. Don’t be fooled though, she is ex-Air Force, pumps iron and does yoga. She is waiting for her security clearance to be raised so that she can be deployed to Afghanistan as a reservist, utilising her language skills. The men are over-solicitous in their concern for her pets inside the house, but reflexively move to block her when she makes a move for the screen door, or even back towards her car. The small talk they attempt positively bristles with threat. They’re fishing, but she ain’t biting. They ask her if she has any weapons in the house. Course she does, she’s ex-military. More FBI guys arrive to execute a search warrant. Apparently classified information has been leaked to a media outlet. A document proving Russian interference in the election that got Trump elected, even as the Orange one is sacking the head of the FBI.

The bulk of the film is her interrogation in a bare spare room in the house. The two FBI guys are a mixture of performative concern and bumbling caricatured characters. But Reality, played by Sydney Sweeney is all facial expressions and tension as she’s calculating how she needs to answer and how much they already know. Sweeney’s performance is mesmerising, never repeating a gesture throughout, yet always seeming to convey so much about what is going on in her mind. She’s military-trained, but that can’t mask her true feelings under this interrogation, from her own side.

With ‘talky’ movies, the criticism is that it feels like a stage play [the film was adapted from Tina Satter's stage play Is This a Room - Ed]. One of the clever things about the direction (by debutant Satter) is that some of the exchange (based on the actual FBI recorded conversation), is represented by typing up of the transcript on screen, or by a sound level recording meter with what I assume are snatches of the original taped interview recordings. But it is really Sweeney’s bravura performance that carries this film. The physical threat of these men invading her private domestic space is visual only, since she is adept and powerful enough not to be intimidated by them. But in the psychological battle between the two she is less able to prevail. Even the simplest, most innocent questions, delivered with overarching concern, convey a menacing subtext which she is intended to parse. The men fail to come across as chilling, but the message they are delivering is utterly so.

I can’t recommend this highly enough. Not just for an extraordinary lead performance, but also for a pithy statement on the state of US affairs and in particular its vulnerabilities and its paranoia.

You can find Reality on BFI Player here

Marc Nash is on Twitter as @21stCscribe.

His books are available from Amazon here.

Image - IMDb

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