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.