Sydney Sweeney in HBO Films’  "Reality."

Sydney Sweeney in HBO Films’  "Reality." Credit: HBO Films/Lily Olsen

MOVIE "Reality"

WHERE Streaming on Max

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Sydney Sweeney plays Reality Winner, the former Air Force member and translator for the National Security Agency who was convicted of leaking classified material about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the online news outlet The Intercept.

"Reality," adapted into a movie for Max by the director Tina Satter from her play "Is This a Room," depicts Winner being questioned by FBI agents on June 3, 2017, with the dialogue lifted entirely from the actual recordings of the interrogation.

It's a tightly composed, claustrophobic portrayal, set almost entirely in an empty room in Winner's home. The agents, Taylor and Garrick, are played by Marchánt Davis and Josh Hamilton.

MY SAY Of the two ways to have gone in telling this story, severely narrowing the focus and concentrating entirely on the interrogation makes more dramatic sense than a conventional whistleblower piece.

It's a better showcase for the actors, especially Sweeney, best known for her work on "Euphoria" and "The White Lotus." Here, she gets the chance to give a more complicated and internalized performance. Making her feat even more impressive, she does so while adhering to a verbatim transcript.

Satter's approach effectively captures the dramatic risks in whistle-blowing while largely removing any sort of politicization or judgments from the equation. A less interesting movie would spend its time hand-wringing over whether Winner's actions were justified or what the consequences for them have to say about certain bedrock American freedoms. That's better fodder for an op-ed.

The arc of the FBI questions, which evolve from a sort of friendly and awkward banter to the revelation that these agents know what Winner did and how this will end, makes this less of a story about a particular moment or action than about evoking a sense of mounting dread as the walls close in.

Movies with giant budgets, expansive crews and tons of effects get all the attention, but few filmmaking challenges could be more pronounced than taking material that's really designed for the stage and presenting it in compelling cinematic form.

Satter, making her filmmaking debut, handles that better than many predecessors, but "Reality" is still rather inert and tension-free.

It's a lot harder to create the sort of suffocating intimacy this sort of storytelling requires on the screen than it is on the stage. There's a fundamental distancing effect that isn't there when you're seeing it unfold in person. That can be compensated for with a visual approach that adds a new dramatic layer, but the close-ups and thoughtful blocking in the movie can't overcome the general staginess. 

The self-imposed limitations focus the narrative but have a downside: anyone who has followed the news knows how this will end, and even the best actors around can only do so much when they're compelled to essentially perform a re-enactment.

BOTTOM LINE It's a fascinating movie in many respects, even if it doesn't quite work.

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