Are whistleblowers good or bad? “Reality” lets viewers decide - Hindustan Times
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Are whistleblowers good or bad? “Reality” lets viewers decide

The Economist
Dec 05, 2023 09:00 AM IST

HBO’s film, starring Sydney Sweeney, deflects the politics other stories dwell on

IN MOST THRILLERS it is easy to distinguish between the virtuous and the villainous. Towards the political end of the genre, however, the line becomes blurred. Tales of anti-government whistleblowers, which hinge on keystrokes rather than killings, epitomise this tension. Someone who breaks the law in service of a broader justice makes for a complicated protagonist. In a drama that creates a compelling character, such as the rogue cop of “Luther”, the BBC ’s detective thriller. But in stories based on real life, portraying the person behind intelligence leaks as evidently good or bad—and therefore one viewers can get behind or not—means taking a political stance.

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IN MOST THRILLERS it is easy to distinguish between the virtuous and the villainous. Towards the political end of the genre, however, the line becomes blurred. Tales of anti-government whistleblowers, which hinge on keystrokes rather than killings, epitomise this tension. Someone who breaks the law in service of a broader justice makes for a complicated protagonist. In a drama that creates a compelling character, such as the rogue cop of “Luther”, the BBC ’s detective thriller. But in stories based on real life, portraying the person behind intelligence leaks as evidently good or bad—and therefore one viewers can get behind or not—means taking a political stance.

The latest of this subgenre, “Reality”, which is now available on Max (the streaming platform formerly known as HBO Max), skilfully avoids doing so. The film (pictured) masterfully adapts the transcript from the FBI’s interrogation of Reality Winner, a 25-year-old intelligence linguist who in 2017 stuffed a top-secret document down her tights before leaving the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor’s office in Georgia where she was employed. The report detailed Russia’s efforts to interfere in the presidential election of 2016, when Americans voted Donald Trump into office.

In the film, Ms Winner comes off as both sophisticated and childish. She is an air-force veteran who speaks three languages and owns three guns (one of which is a pink AR-15 rifle), yet sleeps under a Pikachu duvet and wears yellow Converse with no laces. Infuriated by Mr Trump repeatedly dismissing allegations of Russian hacking—and by Fox News blaring re-runs of him above her cubicle at work—Ms Winner felt the world needed to know what she had seen on the NSA intranet. The film inches towards her confession, which comes a full hour in, told to a pair of detectives in an empty back room of her suburban home.

Blown away by the richness of the transcript, Tina Satter, the director of “Reality”, crafted the screenplay using only the words spoken by Ms Winner and the agents on that day. (Ms Satter spun the film out of her acclaimed play of 2019, “Is This a Room”, which was also a verbatim production based on the FBI’s arrest.) The result is a film which offers insight into the psyche of an atypical young woman whose life is about to radically change. Cast as the protagonist, Sydney Sweeney (“The White Lotus”, “Euphoria”) captures her character’s ordeal magnificently, expressing herself through darting eyes and subtle smirks.

Unlike other films about anti-government leakers, “Reality” resists judging Ms Winner’s decision to spill state secrets. In “The Fifth Estate” (2013), a platinum-haired Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, as bruised, maladjusted and forcefully ambitious. Other whistleblowers, meanwhile, are more unequivocally celebrated. Edward Snowden, an American national-security contractor, hand-picked Laura Poitras, a documentary-maker, to film him in a hotel room in Hong Kong as he divulged as many as 200,000 classified documents about government mass surveillance to two reporters. The resulting documentary, “Citizenfour” (2014), paints Mr Snowden as prudent and self-sacrificing; the viewer admires, perhaps grudgingly, the hacks’ diligence.

“Official Secrets” (2019) is a more dramatised picture: Keira Knightley plays Katharine Gun, a translator working at GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the NSA. In 2003 Ms Gun leaked a classified memo to the press about an operation to gather intelligence that would help America bully members of the UN Security Council into authorising the invasion of Iraq. Between scenes of her fervently shouting at the television and fooling around in bed with her curly-haired husband, a daring and principled (albeit exceptionally ordinary) warrior emerges. Ms Gun was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act, but was eventually vindicated: prosecutors dropped the case against her in 2004.

These movies present their protagonists in a way that may be at odds with the public’s perception of whistleblowers. Americans of all political stripes were split in 2014 as to whether Mr Snowden had served or harmed the public interest; still, most thought the government should prosecute him. (Mr Snowden has evaded capture in Moscow.) As for Ms Winner, a court sentenced her in 2018 to 63 months in prison, the longest penalty ever imposed for an unauthorised release of classified information to the media. (She was released in 2021 for good behaviour.) Yet her case has drawn both less support and less outrage. Ms Satter, one of the few who paid attention, was drawn to her character, not her politics.

In 1991 Ronald Winner chose to name his daughter Reality in the hope that she would grow up to be a “real winner”. On June 3rd 2017, as her home was being raided by detectives, it seemed Reality Winner had lost. In watching the film some will celebrate her takedown; others who believe her actions were justified will condemn it. “Reality” makes room for both.

“Reality” is streaming on Max now and will be released in Britain on June 2nd

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