The sentiment “less is more” has never been quite so true — or as rewarding — as it is in HBO’s Reality. All director Tina Satter needs is three actors, a deserted room, and a few seemingly friendly conversations to conjure a looming sense of dread.
At the center of Reality is Reality Leigh Winner, the former National Security Agency translator who leaked classified documents to The Intercept concerning Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The FBI arrested her in 2017 following an interrogation at her home in Augusta, Georgia. Satter then used the interrogation’s transcript to devise and stage her play Is This A Room(opens in a new tab), upon which Reality is based.
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Though Reality takes its name from its central character, who is portrayed by Sydney Sweeney, it also goes to great lengths to remind us that that it is a true story. Like in Is This A Room, all of Reality‘s dialogue is lifted verbatim from the original FBI transcript of Reality’s interrogation, as well as any sound cues or pauses by the speakers. If it’s on the page, it’s on screen, lending Reality a frighteningly authentic feel. That authenticity, combined with Reality‘s intimate scope and Sweeney’s exceptional performance, makes for an extraordinary thriller that mines boatloads of tension from its own sparseness.
Reality benefits from its unique source material.
Marchánt Davis and Josh Hamilton in “Reality.”
Credit: Courtesy of HBO
Reality opens in deceptively mundane fashion: Reality sits in a bland office cubicle, typing away at something we can’t quite see. However, there’s an undercurrent of tension to the scene, as Fox News reports about President Donald Trump firing FBI director James Comey play on monitors in the background.
Weeks later, we watch as Reality drives home from the grocery store, only to be approached by two men in her yard. They are Agent Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Agent Taylor (Marchánt Davis) of the FBI, and they have a warrant to search her house.
Just like in the opening scene, the following conversation appears outwardly harmless but veils something far more threatening. Garrick and Taylor ask Reality about her pets and label themselves as dog people, all while gesturing for more agents to enter her house. They allow her to put her groceries away while under the scrutiny of silent men. They’re just as likely to ask Reality about her Crossfit and yoga classes as they are to inquire whether she has any guns in the house. (She does.)
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For most of Reality‘s first third, all we get is this seemingly banal dialogue — again, taken in its entirety from the actual FBI transcript. To hammer home the film’s commitment to its source material, Reality often splices in footage of an audio recording of the dialogue we’re hearing or the sound of the transcript itself being typed. Satter never wants you to forget where this story comes from and where it will end, lending Reality a particularly distressing quality. The playwright-turned-filmmaker ups the distress even more with her direction, which never positions Reality in a place of control; she’s almost always surrounded and dwarfed by agents much larger than her. In one shot, she stands in front of an empty street, only for black SUVs to drive into frame not long after and box her in. Thanks to moments like these, there’s a tangible sense that the walls are closing in around her.
Things get even more claustrophobic when Garrick and Taylor take Reality to a spare room in her house for questioning. They begin to interrogate her about possibly mishandling classified information, and it isn’t long before Reality, so cooperative throughout most of the process, begins to waver.
Sydney Sweeney cements her star status in Reality.
Sydney Sweeney in “Reality.”
Credit: Courtesy of HBO
Sweeney has already proven herself an actor to watch, thanks to her Emmy-nominated roles in Euphoria and Season 1 of The White Lotus. In those shows, she’s a standout member of a larger ensemble. Here, she gets a substantial leading role to dig into, and she does not disappoint. Sweeney surfaces all of Reality’s anxieties and vulnerabilities throughout the interrogation, even erupting in anger towards the end about how people should be hearing about the Russian interference. Even in these heightened moments, Sweeney remains wonderfully grounded, never losing sight of the film’s realism.
Her foils, Hamilton and Davis, complement Sweeney’s performance greatly. The two are just as adept as Sweeney at maintaining the realistic patter of Reality‘s dialogue, and they each imbue their work with just the right amount of menace. Sure, Agents Garrick and Taylor present themselves as nice guys, but their line of questioning is enough to make cover your eyes.
For the most part, Reality is a chamber piece between three people, confined to Reality’s spare room — a completely empty space devoid of any furniture whatsoever. Yet the limited space does not stop the film from reaching tension levels one might associate with more lurid fare. As Garrick and Taylor chip away at an increasingly uncomfortable Reality, you’ll find yourself wincing at her responses just as you’d wince at characters in a horror movie suggesting they split up. These suspenseful qualities only build on themselves the tighter its scope gets, a testament to Satter and her team’s immaculate set-up in the film’s first act. Reality grips you tight all the way through, thriving not despite its constraints but because of them.
Reality premieres May 29 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO and Max.(opens in a new tab)
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