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United States vs. Reality Winner: A Plea for Freedom (SXSW Review)

United States vs. Reality Winner: A Plea for Freedom (SXSW Review)

Nils Gollersrud

United States vs. Reality Winner crafts a compelling portrait of its absent subject, although it fails to take a critical lens to the puzzling facts of the case.



On June 3, 2017, NSA contractor Reality Leigh Winner was interrogated by two FBI agents at her home in Georgia and quickly arrested after pleading guilty to charges of leaking classified information under a provision of the Espionage Act of 1917. While working as a translator for the defense intelligence firm Pluribus, Reality Winner (her actual name) came across a classified report with claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election through an email spear-phishing campaign. She printed a copy of the document and mailed it to the online news publication The Intercept.

The journalists assigned to this story violated standard journalistic operating procedure by “burning” her (revealing their source) when they sent the report to an intelligence contractor to verify its legitimacy, and soon this leak came to the attention of the NSA. After her arrest, Winner was held at a local country jail and denied bail twice. In August 2018, she agreed to a plea deal and was sentenced to five years and three months in prison with three years of supervised release, the longest sentence for a whistleblower ever given by a federal court.

In her documentary United States vs. Reality Winner, director Sonia Kennebeck explores Winner’s story to bring greater attention to the injustices surrounding her case. While Winner could not be interviewed for the film, her story is told through her own voice, both in audio from her interrogation and in her letters and poetry read by actress Natalia Dyer. At the opening, we learn that the audio of Winner’s interrogation had just been made public in February 2021, after the film’s crew had filed a lawsuit against the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act.

We’re given an intimate view into Winner’s life, motivations, and personality, and it’s remarkable how well we get to know her just from listening to her voice and reading her text messages and diary entries. A sarcastic sense of humor and a strong passion for justice shine through, but it’s clear that she’s a very conflicted individual who felt disillusioned by her career in the Air Force. We also get to spend much of the film with her family, including her mother Billie Winner-Davis, sister Brittany Winner, and stepfather Gary Davis. They all have an impassioned presence onscreen, even when they’re speaking about such an emotionally charged topic.

The film admirably takes a principled stance with whistleblowers and courageous truthtellers who have exposed the egregious wrongdoings of the American government and intelligence apparatus. United States vs. Reality Winner also features interviews with fellow NSA whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake, as well as CIA torture whistleblower John Kiriakou (who was also burned by the same journalists who mishandled Reality Winner’s case at The Intercept). They share valuable insights explaining the frightening mechanisms of the Espionage Act that they and Winner were prosecuted under, as well as personal thoughts on the profound power and sacrifices of telling the truth under deeply hostile circumstances. Most impactful are Edward Snowden’s closing remarks about the necessity of whistleblowers like Winner and how there will be more people “in every time and every place who are going to see something wrong and go, ‘that’s my problem.’”

Much of United States vs. Reality Winner is cloaked in a grim, gloomy grey visual aura. The look works with the reenactments of Winner’s interrogation, but it feels awkward with the rest of the B-roll footage and often clashes with news footage in its original color. Even sequences of real-life events, like footage of an outdoor press conference, are graded in this color palette, and it comes across as staged and cinematic, like it’s a reenactment. With so much of the film drenched in this murky grey look, you get the sense that it’s trying too hard to convey its dark, grave tone. Similarly, the film gets a bit overexaggerated at times, like during a montage where we see Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s faces imposed on Darth Vader bowing to Emperor Palpatine. For a film so devoted to truth telling, it’s disappointing to see it sink to a low, like endorsing Russiagate (the evidence-free conspiracy theory pushed by mainstream media that Trump is an agent of the Russian government), even if just for a quick laugh.

Winner’s story is certainly compelling, but it raises lots of unanswered questions that the film curiously does not confront. For instance, how and why did Winner, a linguist who translated intelligence in Middle Eastern languages, get access to documents about claims of Russian election interference? Why should this information be believed when the report she leaked contains certain claims that are marked as “analyst judgement” and not “confirmed information?” Why were the journalists who had previously burned whistleblowers like Kiriakou assigned to this case by The Intercept? And most strikingly, why has the #resistance (the strange coterie of liberals and never Trump Republicans) not made this story the centerpiece of their claims of Russian collusion? It’s clear that there’s lots of information missing from the bigger picture and it’s a shame that United States vs. Reality Winner didn’t dig deeper to answer or even ponder over these questions.

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Nonetheless, it’s clear that Reality Winner’s case was improperly handled and she did not deserve such a harsh treatment for her actions, especially considering that the information she leaked, however valid, did not compromise national security and did not put any lives in danger. United States vs. Reality Winner is a stirring plea for Winner’s release and takes a strong stance with whistleblowers and truthtellers who reveal the injustices of the American government, and for that, the film certainly deserves much commendation.


A Clip from United States VS Reality Winner (Courtesy of Codebreaker Films)

United States vs. Reality Winner had its World Premiere at SXSW Online on March 17, 2021: click here to find out more on the festival’s platform.


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