DXIFF 2021 Review: United States vs. Reality Winner

Written by Taylor Baker


Sonia Kennebeck follows up her 2020 documentary Enemies of the State up with a piece of trial propaganda entitled United States vs. Reality Winner. From the get-go there’s no question whose side we’re on, despite no clarity on why. It seems that playing flashy bombastic moments of Donald Trump on television are in Sonia’s opinion or her editor Maxine Goedicke enough to justify Reality’s leak of classified documents. It’s not that there isn’t a good argument for leaking documents(in my opinion), see Edward Snowden. It’s that there isn’t a justifiable case made. It’s presented as if we’re supposed to agree with these choices without any critical faculties. Betsy Reed, Editor in Chief of The Intercept at one point appears, asserting the importance of sharing these documents about the targeted attack on voting machines by the GRU, Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate. The same Betsy Reed who has taken the opposite position when democratic leaders have won elections in The Intercept. Which makes one want to ask, “Which is it Betsy?” It’s times like this that one can see why Glenn Greenwald left the news institution he founded. For anyone perhaps needing a refresher, the man who collaborated to publish the documents leaked by Edward Snowden co-founded a news outlet entitled The Intercept. In October 2020 Greenwald formally broke ties and left the home he helped create, citing ideological directives and a lack of journalistic integrity. It seems the old journalist is right.

Reality Winner, who was freed this year, was a low-ranking counterintelligence contractor who worked as a translator. She was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, the most for any classified document leak. Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things fame plays Reality Winner’s voice actor in the film. As we run through the gamut of what happened to her after leaking the document. Despite no actual interiority or interrogation as to why this was the right choice. One gets the sense that none of this behavior would have been exhibited by Reality, nor by Sonia in making the film if literally, anyone other than Trump was in office. Which raises the question, if you wouldn’t take this action with another president in office, then why do you think you think we should give you carte blanche in this situation? Comey being fired is shown to coincide with her decision. But Reality never asserts this point within the film. No letter shows her saying she felt the intelligence agencies were all corrupt. Instead, we learn of her worrying about a date she couldn’t make after being arrested, being upset she couldn’t teach a yoga class. Human concerns that are affecting to be sure. But she never owns up during the interview to having leaked documents when asked. Which she did do. It’s hard to find the hero in such a mixed and politically motivated character. One that hasn’t demonstrated a pattern of truth-telling in a project that clearly and deliberately is meant to be trial propaganda like other documentaries released before it this year, LFG, Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil, Stockholm Syndrome. 

After a cut to an exterior shot of a rural home with a truck parked in front, we hear her parents trying to speak to her on the phone but there’s a bad connection. “For what purpose?” You might ask. It makes as much sense as not explaining in detail her thought process and premeditation to leak the document. I have no idea. What’s particularly interesting is the allegation that Richard Esposito and Matthew Cole, two reporters for The Intercept at the time are said to have turned over a copy of the document and possibly incriminated multiple sources. The allegation seems on its face to be especially convincing and damning of Esposito who currently serves as Deputy Commissioner of Strategic Communication for the NYPD after previously serving as Department Commissioner of Public Information for the NYPD. Both he and Matthew Cole who is still with The Intercept did not choose to comment. But for those intrepid few who seek further information you may learn this actually a common career evolution for journalists and requires much more noncircumstantial evidence. Rather than a documentary on the issues that may be raised with the 1917 Espionage Act United States vs. Reality Winner concerns itself with why it’s everyone but Reality’s fault for her choices. Which is odd when the premise you’d think they’d want to argue is that she had a responsibility or duty to her nation. It’s also curious how deliberately unclear the film chose to be about Reality’s present circumstances until the very end. Perhaps they’d painted themselves into a corner with how heavily they leaned and shot the film with the goal being for her defense. Its points are largely lost now due to her release.

If you’re interested about this topic and wish to learn much more than the documentary details I recommend listening to Glenn Greenwald discuss it with Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper on the Useful Idiots Podcast. Their discussion begins at 41:50.

United States vs. Reality Winner Trailer

United States vs. Reality Winner was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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