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‘Reality’ starkly casts Sydney Sweeney as NSA whistleblower Reality Winner

<i>Courtesy of HBO</i><br/>Sydney Sweeney stars in the film
Courtesy of HBO
Sydney Sweeney stars in the film "Reality

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — A filmed version of the 2019 play, “Reality’s” stage origins are clearly evident, in an extremely spare and lean movie that serves as a decidedly unglamorous showcase for Sydney Sweeney, already an HBO all-star between “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus.” With dialogue culled directly from Reality Winner’s FBI interview, the movie is both meticulous to a fault and almost surreal in its awkwardness.

For those who need a refresher on the underlying facts, the then-25-year-old Winner was arrested in 2017 and subsequently charged with mishandling classified information. After a fleeting introduction of her at work as a National Security Agency intelligence specialist, the movie picks up with Winner being met by FBI agents as she arrives home, serving a search warrant and questioning her.

Writer-director Tina Satter adapts her play, which is defined by the small talk between Winner and the two agents (Josh Hamilton, Marchánt Davis), engaging a coy cat-and-mouse game since they clearly know more than they’re letting on.

Much of the exchange is most notable for its banality in light of the subtext, as Winner frets about her dog and cat (the latter hiding somewhere in the house), as well as whether she can put her groceries away, before getting to the fundamental question, “Am I going to jail tonight?”

Satter cleverly presents the dialogue in a way that incorporates visual blips to denote redactions in the transcript, with occasional flashes of audio snippets from the actual interrogation.

The hyper-real approach conveys the tension and unease within the moment, while leaving sizable gaps in Winner’s story and motivations (other than the TV at work being tuned to Fox News) that will likely inspire many thinking viewers to quickly Google her case.

There’s an obvious timeliness in examining how Winner – celebrated for her status as a whistle-blower by those who see her sentence as a grave injustice – was imprisoned for mishandling a single classified document giving the legal issues pertaining to classified documents currently swirling around former President Donald Trump and others.

Practically speaking, the timing for “Reality” is far more mundane than that, premiering on HBO two days before the Emmy-eligibility window closes. With less competition in that category as concepts that once became TV movies increasingly get expanded into multi-part limited series, the chances of this film garnering awards attention, particularly for Sweeney, seem better than they would have been in the past.

“Reality” might have benefited from widening the play’s tight, almost-claustrophobic focus a little bit more for this medium, but what’s there remains stark and compelling, with Sweeney’s discomfort speaking volumes even though the character says very little.

However sympathetic one might be toward Winner’s treatment by the justice system, “Reality” captures what it was like to be in her shoes with what feels like a harsh dose of reality.

“Reality” premieres May 29 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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