Almost every country is tackling the might of an authoritarian regime right now or is trying to recover from the damage that such a regime has caused. Since the national media in India is so concerned with the United States of America (and when they get some free time, they talk about Pakistan), it’s easier to keep track of their politics as compared to the rest of the world. And after looking at these two nations for a long time, we can draw parallels between the growing tendency of both India and the USA to obfuscate the line between nationalism and patriotism. The reason behind it is pretty simple: when a citizen can be labeled an anti-national or a terrorist as soon as they question the actions of the government or law enforcement authorities, then the state can get away with anything. If a majority of the population can be convinced that someone among them can be as much of a threat as a threat from the outside, then there won’t be any unity. When there’s no unity, it’ll be easier to subjugate the populace. Tina Satter’s Reality attempts to question this never-ending issue.
Based on Satter’s stage play, Is This A Room, where the dialogues in the script were taken from the transcript of the FBI interrogation of the titular character, the movie opens with Reality working at her desk as a translator for the NSA (National Security Agency), while “experts” on a news channel discuss James B. Comey’s firing. The narrative moves forward in time by 25 days and follows Reality as she arrives home after doing some grocery shopping. Before she can enter her house, FBI officers Taylor and Garrick inform her that they have a warrant to search her premises, her car, and essentially everything that she owns. From that point on, over a dozen male officers start to arrive at her doorstep and turn her home upside down. Garrick keeps Winner busy with mundane questions about her life and where she goes to do crossfit and whatnot, thereby easing her into the situation. When they feel she’s uncomfortable enough to begin answering their questions, the officers reveal that she’s guilty of being a whistleblower regarding Russia’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections. And with each passing second, it becomes evident that, instead of being hailed as a hero, she’s about to be portrayed as a villain.
The news about how Russian forces allegedly helped Donald Trump become the President of the United States was so loud that it reached the remotest areas of this planet, and unlike every other time, it didn’t seem like a weird overreaction. What did seem weird was that a massive chunk of the general populace and the system tried to undermine the allegations in the name of nationalism. And Reality Winner and her story were victims of that cover-up. To be honest, I had no idea of her existence until I watched this movie, and her experience was harrowing to witness but not surprising at all. What happened to her has been happening to so many Indians on a daily basis just because they’ve got the balls to tell the truth. However, just like in Reality, the media, the authorities, and the government are painting their intentions as something malicious. In doing so, the powers that be are creating an atmosphere where anyone who is critical of their country–because they want it to be better–learns to shut up and only do what they are ordered to do. If that’s not fascism, then what is?
The opening text of Reality claims that the dialogues in the film have been taken verbatim from the transcript. So, the impact of what’s at play depends a lot on the actors. And the casting department has done a great job of hiring three artists who have the ability to deliver exposition in an incredibly organic fashion. Although Sydney Sweeney has been meme-d to hell for her portrayal of panic in the hit HBO show Euphoria, in this movie, which is devoid of all the bells and whistles, you can actually see how she uses anxiety, fear, and confusion to make her characters relatable. The way she uses the limited space around her, the way she looks at the FBI officers, the way she averts everyone’s gaze, and the way she breaks down after trying to express that she isn’t ashamed of being a whistleblower while being afraid for her pets, are very realistic. By the end, you can’t help but empathize with Reality’s plight while championing her for her bravery. Josh Hamilton (or the guy from the movie I watched the most number of times as a teen, i.e., Outsourced), as always, is really good. The way he contrasts his calm demeanor with his piercing questions is interesting to watch. Marchánt Davis plays the intimidating, physical presence who tries to be sensitive regarding this situation but is on the edge of breaking protocol. In fact, that’s applicable to the rest of the cast too, who seem like human-sized termites in Reality’s house.
Tina Satter, along with her cinematographer Paul Yee, editors Ron Dunlin and Jennifer Vecchiarello, and composer Nathan Micay, put a lot of emphasis on creating a suffocating atmosphere. When Reality enters her house, there are several shots of the FBI officers populating the frame while she barely manages to get to her fridge. Satter puts us in her shoes as she feels the leering gaze of the FBI officers. At one point, she becomes so anxious that she apparently imagines two of the officers (Taylor and Joe) laughing uncontrollably about her cat. And although it’s probably a “matter of perspective,” that doesn’t mean that those moments aren’t a scathing critique of the kind of grossness that the male gender has become synonymous with. It’s not like the FBI didn’t know she’s a single woman living by herself, and it’s not like they didn’t know she wasn’t an actual threat. Yet they didn’t bring a female officer for the proceedings. In addition to all that, I like the way the act of redacting a statement has been visualized. The movie makes it seem like they travel to an alternate reality that exists beyond the visual spectrum to talk about the confidential stuff and then return to the movie’s reality. Maybe the movie is saying that if a fascist government and law enforcement authorities had it their way, they would’ve preferred to send all of us into this nether realm called “censorship.”
In conclusion, although it’s pretty cliche to say that you should watch Reality because it’s an important movie, I have to say exactly that. Maybe it’s not as visceral as you want it to be. Maybe it is not as visually dynamic as you want it to be. Maybe it’s not as sensational as you want it to be. Still, the topic and the character that are at its center are reason enough to dedicate around 80 minutes of your life to this film. You’ll probably notice some red flags in Reality’s character due to the ongoing issue of gun violence in America. However, it won’t detract from what the film is trying to achieve, i.e., understanding the difference between nationalism and patriotism. From where I stand, I think that being a nationalist is detrimental to the progress of a country because you aren’t questioning national policies or what the government is doing. Being a patriot is always better because you are trying to improve your country by being critical of its regressive and dictatorial practices. By the way, if the movie is too stressful and triggering, take a trip through Reality Winner’s Instagram (it’s still active at the time of writing this article) and see her going about her day as a dog mom and a fitness enthusiast. It’ll probably help you alleviate your stress and make you realize that governments can’t (or shouldn’t) diminish your love for your country, your people, and your life.