Film Review : United States vs. Reality Winner

A glance at Sonia Kennebeck’s captivating new documentary, which premiered at SXSW, that examines the case against Reality Winner, the bold, low-level document leaker who incensed the overreaching wrath of the U.S. Government… 

by: Jennifer Parker

On a day she most likely came to regret, Reality Winner took a classified, traceable, and photocopied document out of the National Security Agency office where she was a subcontractor by folding it up and stuffing it into her pantyhose. It was 2017 and Russian interference in the 2016 elections was still big news — just no one in the intelligence community seemed to care. Ms. Winner leaked the document anonymously to the The Intercepta news outlet in New York, which failed to protect her identity when they contacted the NSA to verify the authenticity of the document. Soon enough, the FBI tracked down Winner at her home in Augusta, Georgia, interrogated her, coerced her to confess, and charged the twenty five year old NSA contractor and Air Force veteran under the Espionage Act.

Filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck’s latest film, United States vs. Reality Winner, is a superb deconstruction of the true crime genre as the documentary focuses less on the crime itself and more on the family members of a young woman who can no longer speak for herself. In Kennebeck’s documentary, viewers are taken on a journey through Winner’s parents’ tireless efforts to defend and support their daughter (#standwithreality) for an entire year before she accepts a plea deal with an absurdly long, five-year prison sentence. The actual interrogation of Ms. Winner by the FBI is laid out in United States vs Reality Winner, and it contains actual footage Kennebeck obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (it took two years to acquire). Viewers are then privy to recorded conversations from prison between Ms. Winner and her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, and to texts between Ms. Winner and her sister, Brittany.

No stranger to the genre, Kennebeck is a former investigative journalist who directed Enemies of the State and National Bird. The latter deconstructs the backlash whistleblowers face revealing the truths about the United States’ drone program, and is an apt companion piece to United States vs. Reality Winner. Kennebeck’s films are not snapshots of the recent past, but ongoing and unresolved investigations into real and prevalent issues. Between the birth of the Espionage Act one hundred years ago and the premiere of United States vs. Reality Winner in March 2021, eight people —  including Ms. Winner —  have been charged under the Espionage Act. In March 2019, Daniel Hale was arrested for disclosing that the United States Military was targeting and killing civilians in the drone program. Three years later, on March 31, 2021 he pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act. Mr. Hale appeared in Kennebeck’s film after being arrested and is not the only subject of National Bird, he is one of several former military drone specialists profiled in the film. Hale neither admitted to nor was ever charged with sharing any secrets with a foreign government.

Kennebeck is thorough in researching all the topics she covers and for this film, she traveled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden, who seemed sanguine and less guarded than he did in Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizen Four. Snowden reiterates more than once his gratitude that American government contractors and service members are continuing to reveal, via whistleblowing, what is at least on the surface, unconstitutional. 

Kennebeck doesn’t allow us to forget that Reality Winner’s act has precedent. We see a 1971 clip of Daniel Ellsberg — the Pentagon Papers whistleblower — discuss his charges. When asked by a reporter if he had any concern about the possibility of going to prison for his acts Ellsberg answered, “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?”

What fashions itself frustrating about Reality Winner’s case, and a trying concept to convey, is that the subject matter isn’t black and white. It isn’t as simple as did she or didn’t she stuff a sheet of photocopied paper into her stockings? It’s a Kafkaesque matter of why it was a secret in the first place, and this is what makes films such as United States vs. Reality Winner so important. 

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