United States vs. Reality Winner, 2021.
Directed by Sonia Kennebeck.
A state of secrets and a ruthless hunt for whistleblowers – this is the story of 25-year-old Reality Winner, who disclosed a document about Russian election interference to the media and became the number one leak target of the Trump administration.
Sonia Kennebeck’s (National Bird, Enemies of the State) third documentary feature circles back to the themes of her prior works – whistleblowers and governmental overreach – to deliver a potent blow against the anti-information, anti-justice missives of Donald Trump’s government, which perpetuated a gross culture of punishing leakers.
Kennebeck’s film is focused specifically on the case of Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old NSA contractor who, in 2017, leaked a document to the press detailing a Russian cyberattack which took place days before the 2016 U.S. presidential election in an attempt to infiltrate the American electoral system. It wasn’t long before Winner had the FBI knocking at her door, resulting in her being arrested for mishandling of top-secret materials and ultimately being imprisoned for five years and three months.
Perhaps more than anything else, United States vs. Reality Winner begs audiences to consider the true meaning and utility of patriotism. Given the way that Winner’s extremely justified and ultimately quite harmless leak was received, it’s clear that many see the scope of national duty as extending to the suppression of problematic truths and the punishment of those who bring them to light.
Predictably, the wider media cycle filtered Winner’s arrest through a sensationalist sausage factory, with Republican-leaning outlets ensuring that the story of the leak clouded the content of the leak. The paradox of politicians condemning Winner’s actions while salivating over the details really tells you most of what you need to know about the situation.
But this well-researched, dense documentary goes further, exploring the nature of whistleblowing as a public service – where information in the public interest is made public – pitted against the ego-driven mission of the authorities to punish leakers and demonise whistleblowing under the ever-nebulous guise of “national security.” Really, it’s about the state flexing its muscles to assuage its own embarrassment and discourage other dissenters.
Sadly Trump’s establishment wasn’t satisfied with throwing Winner in jail for a blatantly excessive period of time – no matter that she wasn’t Mirandised on her initial arrest – and also sought to assassinate her character to the world, the prosecution poring over her sardonic, blackly comic journal entries and chats, cherry-picking comments to characterise her as a terrorist sympathiser. A scene where we hear United States Attorney Bobby Christine read aloud Winner’s chat posts sans-context would probably be comical were it not so horrifyingly glib.
Really, Winner’s great fault seems less that she highlighted the possibility of a rigged election than the fact that she dared speak out against the American status quo. This is something Kennebeck contextualises with some help from star interviewee Edward Snowden, who underlines the impact of 9/11 in bolstering America’s reactionary stance against both terrorists and apparent domestic threats.
Winner was ultimately charged under the Espionage Act 1917, a piece of war-time legislation intended to punish German defectors, yet which both the Obama and Trump administrations have effectively weaponised against leakers. The strict scope of the act gives defendants little room to actually defend themselves; the nature of the classified information can’t be disclosed to a jury, ensuring the deck is stacked against whistleblowers from the jump.
There are wider issues to consider, also, namely the role of the press as mediators between leakers and the public – and a buffer against the government. As it turned out, Winner was identified through a bout of unprofessionalism at the unfortunately-monikered publication she leaked the information to, The Intercept.
Sloppy practises regarding sensitive documents led to Intercept employees providing the FBI with sufficient information to track Winner down, but of course, Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed insists that she would have eventually been caught regardless. “Journalists aren’t spies,” another subject says, and yet, a publication which specialises in releasing leaked information must do better than this (they eventually started a fund for Winner’s legal battle).
The devastating finality is that Winner is still running out the clock on her sentence, which ends in November, and is reported here to have contracted COVID-19 while in jail. Her legacy, however, lies in the fact that 2020’s elections were reported to be the most secure ever, though only time will tell if Joe Biden’s administration will endeavour to approach whistleblowers much differently or simply continue the culture of victimisation.
This is a slickly edited, extremely concise primer on the titular subject, framed throughout by audio recordings of Winner’s initial interrogation, which the FBI unlawfully withheld from the filmmakers for almost two years. These clips are set to tasteful reconstructions of Winner’s first encounter with the authorities, while actress Natalia Dyer lends her voice to Winner’s journal entries.
Interviews are meanwhile varied and concise; Snowden unsurprisingly brings a particular power to the film as he weighs up the gravity of Reality’s act, while testament from her mother and sister are as heartbreaking as you’d expect.
Sonia Kennebeck’s terrifying, enraging documentary asks thoughtful questions about patriotism while powerfully profiling one brave NSA whistleblower who invoked the ire of the Trump administration.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.