The name of Reality Winner is fitting for a modern-day martyr – it’s memorable and loaded with significance, appearing fake but in reality, it isn’t. In 2017, late-night shows had a lot of fun with this name, as it belonged to a whistleblower who bravely attempted to reveal the truth about Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Unfortunately, cable news transformed her into a scapegoat, and the Trump administration treated her as prey.
The name (and those late-night bits) is frequently mentioned in Winner, the second film in less than a year to focus on her story (the first being HBO’s Reality, which also has a similar title). Directed by Susanna Fogel (known for Cat Person and Booksmart) and written by Kerry Howley, the film seems to take pleasure in voicing the thoughts of the audience. Instead of leaving it up to interpretation, Winner directly states what a traditional biopic might imply – that this is a tale about her decision to leak evidence of government deception to the public. As Coda’s Emilia Jones explains in a voiceover at the beginning, “Yeah, they don’t appreciate it when you do that.”
Reworded: The use of lively elements such as breaking the fourth wall, cheeky voiceovers, and building a playful connection with the audience has become a common expectation. This style is reminiscent of other biographical films like Molly’s Game and I, Tonya, which also incorporate a mix of facts, interpretation, and personal flair. Similar to those films, the main character in Reality is a notorious woman with a compelling story to share. However, the honesty in the storytelling occasionally hinders its ability to effectively convey the story.
Just to clarify, Winner, which debuted at the Sundance film festival, is not a rehash of Reality, the movie adaptation of Tina Satter’s highly praised play that portrayed the transcript of Winner’s intense interrogation by the FBI in May 2017. While that film, featuring Sydney Sweeney, was a gripping and impactful thriller, showcasing the manipulative tactics of law enforcement to break someone’s spirit, Winner expands the perspective. It swiftly covers significant moments in her life, from childhood to her four-year incarceration, shedding light on the motivations behind her political action that she herself regrets did not garner more attention.
The recurring theme is that reality always presents challenges and conflicts, as described by the main character’s father Ron (played by Zach Galifianakis), a pessimistic aspiring writer who was jobless for most of her upbringing. Ron taught her a pivotal lesson from her most significant childhood experience, the 9/11 attacks: violence could be avoided if people simply tried to understand each other. Despite being a precocious and rebellious child, she begins teaching herself Arabic as a teenager in Texas – a fact later used against her in court to suggest she supported terrorism. This confuses her more traditional mother Billie (played by Connie Britton), a social worker, and her sister Brittany (a lesser used character played by Kathryn Newton).
The movie efficiently presents key information through snappy dialogue and casual, spirited narration likely inspired by the subject, whom Howley featured in a 2017 article for New York magazine. Recruited by the military for her exceptional language abilities, Reality forgoes college and joins the US Air Force with the goal of being deployed to Afghanistan after learning Dari and Pashto. However, she is ultimately stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland, where she translates intercepted conversations of individuals, including families with children, located thousands of miles away, in order to assist drone operators in identifying targets.
The main character’s interludes successfully convey her mental anguish. In order to cope with her overwhelming feelings of guilt and the constant stream of negative news in her mind, she starts a romantic relationship with a bartender named Andre (played by Danny Ramirez) and adopts a rigorous exercise routine. One of the standout elements of the film is Anastasia Magoutas’s costume design, which perfectly captures the tomboyish, anti-fashion style of the mid-2010s. Eventually, the main character becomes a private contractor for the National Security Agency. Despite its relatively short runtime of 103 minutes, Winner never feels slow or dragging. We quickly learn about her disillusionment, what drove her to commit her crime, and how she carried it out – all of which seem surprisingly mundane and understandable in context. However, the government’s treatment of her is truly shocking and deplorable.
Howley is a captivating and darkly humorous writer of nonfiction. Her screenplay is filled with intriguing whispers and honest confessions, as if she were talking to a close friend. Winner is brought to life through Howley’s writing, and Jones’s skillful portrayal of a lovable but blunt-hearted character adds to the charm of the story. However, there is a lingering feeling that the plot is too tidy, too cleverly twisted to fit into the mold of a typical unconventional biopic. While Reality’s relationships with her father and Andre are powerfully depicted in brief moments, Brittany and Billie’s characters feel underdeveloped and confusing. In the puzzle of Reality Winner’s life, there are noticeable gaps, missing details that need to be filled in.
However, when it comes to trending nonfiction, Winner stands out as one of the more impressive choices, managing to both captivate and enlighten. Despite facing an unjust defeat for an extended period of time, Reality Winner ultimately prevails in this portrayal.
The Sundance film festival is currently showcasing the film “Winner” and is looking for distribution opportunities.