Review by Sean Boelman
Coming at a time in which election fraud has seemingly dominated the headlines for months, the documentary United States vs. Reality Winner asks how much the American government actually cares about the issue. And while this does lean towards the flashier side of nonfiction filmmaking, it still manages to be compelling because of its shocking story.
The film tells the story of Reality Winner, a former NSA contractor turned whistleblower who was prosecuted by the U.S. government for leaking information about foreign interference in the election. It’s a fascinating case study that a majority of people have heard of but likely don’t understand the extent to which it has implications on our country.
First and foremost, this is a work of advocacy to tell Winner’s story in a way that pulls back the curtain on media coverage of her trial. The film poses some interesting questions about the way in which the government, media, and public treat whistleblowers who are acting in the public’s best interest but are designated as criminals.
However, the more fascinating aspect of the film explores on whom the culpability for Winner’s situation falls. Is it a system that punishes those who want there to be transparency for the public? Or is it a bad journalist who failed to protect the anonymity of their source? Audiences are left to decide the answer to that question.
Like in her previous films, director Sonia Kennebeck does a good job of exploring the effects of the subject’s story beyond themself. Much of the film is presented from the perspective of Winner’s family, who was forced to watch as their daughter became an object of public scorn, causing them both great sadness and scorn. This provides a really solid emotional foundation for the film.
On the other hand, the more political aspect of the film is explored by experts in the field and other famous whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden. These interviews work to put Winner’s story into context within the history of whistleblowing in the United States and really shock the audience with how lack of transparency has been an issue in this country for a long time.
There are a lot of techniques used in this film that are intended to make the narrative more entertaining and sensationalized for mass audiences, and even though it is easy to recognize them, they aren’t terribly distracting. For example, narration from Natalia Dyer voicing Reality Winner is used, but not in a way that steals the spotlight from the interviews and archive materials.
United States vs. Reality Winner is an interesting documentary about a story whose importance has received a bit of a resurgence in recent months. Apart from a slight gimmickiness, this is an accomplished and effective political documentary.
United States vs. Reality Winner screened as a part of the online edition of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, which ran March 16-20.