Review: United States vs. Reality Winner | SXSW 2021

Score: A-

Director: Sonia Kennebeck

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rated: NR

Election security was one of the most important issues in the 2020 election. Part of the reason for that: Russian forces hacked local election databases and the DNC in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Right now, it's public knowledge. But in 2017, a 25-year-old government contractor leaked a classified memo about Russian interference. That landed her a lengthy jail sentence.

United States vs. Reality Winner is the first good movie I've seen at SXSW, and a harrowing documentary about an overzealous government that values its secrets more than its citizens.

Winner was an Air Force veteran who consulted on translations. She received high marks from her superior officers. But none of that mattered once the FBI was able to determine that she leaked classified information to online newspaper the Intercept.

We never get to see Winner on-camera. She was denied bail before her trial, then accepted a plea deal for just over five years in prison. She was forbidden from speaking to the film crew after. But there are numerous home movies, recorded phone calls from prison, and actress Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) to read words she wrote. There's also audio of the damning FBI interview she gave, conducted under intimidating circumstances.

While the focus is on Winner, it's just as much a portrait of her parents. They start as an unassuming couple from South Texas. By the end, they're full-blown activists, speaking out for their daughter whenever possible.

In addition to Winner's family, Sonia Kennebeck gets great interviews with other whistleblowers, including John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who revealed classified info about the torture program and served nearly two years in prison. His explanations of the Espionage Act and the recklessness of reporters at the Intercept are crucial. She also got the big fish: Edward Snowden. He provides context on the ruthlessness of the U.S. government against leakers and whistleblowers, regardless of the importance of the information released or the political party in power.

The film climaxes with Winner's plea deal, and a grandstanding statement from U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine. He freely admits that harsh sentences for whistleblowers is less about the punishment fitting the crime, and more about deterring people from leaking classified documents in the future. It's the chilling effect in action, and it should give all U.S. citizens pause.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.