Reality Review: Sydney Sweeney Shines in Gripping and Thought-Provoking HBO Film

Reality wins on HBO. Check out the new film starring Sydney Sweeney as Reality Winner, on HBO on May 29.
HBO Reality Sydney Sweeney

The question of what is the optimal point of view to tell a story has been oddly coming up over the past few weeks when discussing new and upcoming films and TV series. When reviewing Netflix’s The Mother, I argued that the movie would have benefitted greatly from changing perspectives and anchoring it from the daughter’s point of view. It was also revealed recently that Killers of the Flower Moon received a major rewrite when Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio realized by changing the focal point of the story could allow them to unlock its heart and soul. This topic is very relevant to HBO’s latest film, Reality, which stars Euphoria‘s Sydney Sweeney as Reality Winner

Reality, directed by Tina Satter from a screenplay she co-wrote with James Paul Dallas and based on her own 2019 play “Is This a Room”, is a literal translation to the screen of the FBI recordings from the day investigators showed up at Reality Winner’s house, back in June 2017, with a search warrant for her house, her car, and her phone. Winner is now known as the convicted NSA whistleblower behind the leak to The Intercept of classified documents that contained definitive proof of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

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Every single line of dialogue in the film is taken from that recording, and only through editing, the actual performances, and some quick shots set in her NSA office, does the director take any “creative” liberties on the story — of course, this is a very broad term that has a very different meaning in this film than, say, 2019’s Rocketman. Reality will likely go down in history as the most accurate representation of true events ever put to film, and yet, the director still manages to sneak in some commentary.

How Reality Uses Perspective to Tell a Story

HBO Reality Sydney Sweeney

We were talking about perspective, an interesting term to use when analyzing this film. As stated, and as explained in the first few frames of the movie, the script’s dialogue (which also omits redacted parts of the transcript) is taken directly from the FBI recordings. This already introduced a point of reference into the film, the investigators. With a few minor edits in the script, this can easily be seen as a procedural where two heroes, with the help of a few agents that search the house, take down a traitorous criminal that could have done great damage to their great nation.

But that is very much not the case here. Reality already starts to subvert that trope from its very title, meaning that even if the script might be taken from a specific point of view, what’s in it is definitely much more layered than that. Sydney Sweeney is our protagonist, there is no doubt about that, but that is only reflected in the script (and ultimately the film) outside of the dialogue.

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The Story of HBO’s Reality, Starring Sydney Sweeney

HBO Reality Sydney Sweeney

We open the film with a wide shot of an NSA office with three cubicles and people working inside them; one of them is Sweeney’s Reality. But she almost seems insignificant against the two giant TVs that are playing Fox News in the background; already a hint of the looming shadow over our protagonist. Shortly after we cut to an outside shot of Sydney Sweeney walking to her car, and immediately after, to Sweeney parking her car in her driveway and two FBI agents knocking on her window. That’s when the dialogue kicks in.

These are no “bring down the door with a battering ram and shoot everything that moves”-kind of agents. They are cordial but direct. “We have a search warrant for the house, and we are going in.” “Oh my goodness! Alright, can I at least get my dog out? She doesn’t like men…” Let’s bring the dog out. How old is she? How long have you been living in the neighborhood? What is it that you do at your job exactly? You speak how many languages? All friendly on both accounts. But let’s get real here.

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HBO Reality Sydney Sweeney

Interestingly enough, if this was actually scripted dialogue, it would even seem like the real reason why the agents are at Winner’s house is treated as a third-act reveal. Every mention of the 2016 election, the Russians, and The Intercept is redacted from the transcript, so viewers going in with no preconceived knowledge of the story might have a hard time figuring out what’s actually going on here. And that also speaks to the question of perspective — what are these agents looking for? Who are we supposed to side with here, because this is a recording they made, but this poor woman seems like she has done nothing wrong. And yet, she’s acting so strangely calm… What is going on?

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During the third act, we start to get some reveals. Not because the script allows for it, but because this is a movie that is trying to reach as broad an audience as possible, and they are looking for answers. And also, we need to make a point here. Or rather, pose a few questions to the audience…

Director Tina Satter is the Real Star

HBO Reality Sydney Sweeney

Reality, perhaps more than any other facts-based movie in recent memory, uses to great results the technique of feeding the audience everything that happened, punching them in the mouth with the final title cards that recap what went down after the events depicted in the film, and letting the weight of what happened sink in. It’s an amazing directorial debut, not only because of how Tina Satter is able to flip the script(’s perspective), but also because of the masterful work she does when staging the scenes.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she comes from a theater background, where most of what the director wants to convey is achieved through blocking, i.e., how the characters move around the stage (or frame, in our case) to convey certain emotions. Simply through the shoots she uses and where she puts the camera and her actors, we are able to see how these two agents are cornering the young woman, how she’s trying to shyly dance around them, and how she eventually falls for their arguments. Which poses the question — who are the heroes of this story? Are there any? Probably not, and that is reality most of the time.

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HBO Reality Marchant Davis Josh Hamilton
Marchánt Davis as Agent Taylor and Josh Hamilton as Agent Garrick in HBO’s Reality, directed by Tina Satter. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Satter partnered with three amazing actors for this film, and they probably couldn’t have been better cast. Sydney Sweeney is terrific, as we’ve come to expect from her (this could finally propel her to an Emmy win), but Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis deliver such layered and complex performances it’s certain this film will open many doors for the two of them. They have to walk the line between being friendly with Winner so that she feels like there is a safe space where she can open up about what she did, and also being tough in their commitment to achieving results.

Reality is a fantastic film, definitely one of the year’s best so far, and it will hopefully be a conversation starter. There is a lot to say about it politically, and that is perhaps what Satter intended with it, but I would also suggest to look at it as an example of how to use perspective in a script to deliver a message and ask the right questions.

Reality Sydney Sweeney HBO

The film will air on HBO on Monday, May 29, and will be able to stream on Max right after. Was it on your radar? Are you looking forward to it? Did you have any knowledge of the story beforehand? What is your favorite Sydney Sweeney performance? Let us know on our social media, and stay tuned for more reviews coming soon!

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