What a pleasure it is to see Sydney Sweeney, freed from the clutches of Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, reaching new heights as an actor. The all-American bombshell casts off her best known role as the sweet Cassie from that sex-heavy teen drama and delivers a performance full of twitchy, anxious ambiguity.
Tina Satter’s lean, intriguing drama – based on the transcripts from an interview with a real-life NSA whistleblower Reality Winner (yes, her real name) – is a story of individual eccentricity and political nous, of a win for the greater good and of enormous personal loss.
In 2017, Winner, a former linguist and translator for the Air Force, printed and leaked documents implicating Russia in attempting to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. That information, once published, would be earth-shattering, but Winner’s bravery did not prevent her from serving a five-year prison sentence for the leak.
As told by Satter, the story takes on curious and enigmatic dimensions, even while remaining, essentially, a chamber piece involving three people talking in a room. Two FBI agents, played by Josh Hamilton and Marchant Davis, arrive at the twentysomething’s home to interrogate her. She does little to deny or mitigate her guilt, so it’s more a question of what happened when – and from there, Satter focuses in on the micro-gestures and small looks, the actors washed out by terrible overhead lighting and feigning banal small talk. Filming with minimal self-consciousness but for a few snap zooms, Satter keeps the cinematic trickery to a minimum in service of the dialogue.
Winner is kept intentionally enigmatic to the viewer, but we do get a few small, telling details: a pink-handled firearm, for example, or a heartening obsession with protecting her pets. On the basis of this interrogation (the transcript for which periodically is shown on the screen), the sentence she eventually gets is genuinely disturbing.
Satter’s project could be minor-key, given its setup and its lack of plot twists, but its understated emotional stakes and wider political ones – not to mention a complex, tricky performance from Sweeney – make it completely absorbing.