Last week, “comedian” Hannah Gadsby was dealt a 1-2 body blow by ARTNews and The New York Times for her controversial show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, It’s Pablo-matic. I read Alex Greenberger’s excellent vivisection the night before Jason Farago’s pan in The New York Times was published. The show, ostensibly a feminist reappraisal of Pablo Picasso and his work, was ripped apart in a way that never would’ve been allowed in the last half decade. Gadsby, a non-binary New Zealander who broke out with their 2018 Netflix special Nanette, studied art history before going into comedy—but judging by these two pieces, which I’ve seen referred to as “epochal” multiple times, she didn’t learn much. Greenberger and Farago overlap often, both embarrassed by the incredibly stupid title of the show, and the hare-brained and self-righteous commentary scattered throughout.
As I’ve written many times, the last major cultural shift happened nearly a decade ago: in 2013, the song of the summer was “Blurred Lines,” Miley Cyrus had her year of “hot, ready, and LEGAL!” just like Lindsay Lohan in 2004, and studio comedies had yet to erase the “unrepentant pussy hound” archetype (check out Jason Sudeikis in Horrible Bosses 2, just nine years ago). By December 2013, Twitter users were wondering #WhenWillJustineLand? Things didn’t change overnight, but the public’s participation and fervent glee at the inevitable firing of Justine Sacco for a thoughtless AIDS joke was the first instance I remember of the culture we’ve been living in for the last 10 years.
Recriminations, mob justice, reputations ruined for fun—keep in mind, Harvey Weinstein had another three years on the loose, and Donald Trump was still 18 months away from announcing his candidacy when things started to change. If this really is the beginning of the end of the worst period of pop culture in my entire life—well, good. No more movies, books, or shows like Reality, directed and co-written by Tina Satter from her play. I liked a lot about the movie, but this is through and through a product of the Trump years and #MeToo. Yes, no shit it’s about Trump, since this is a movie about the June 3, 2017 arrest of Reality Winner, an NSA whistleblower who got caught sending classified documents to The Intercept; but this isn’t a political film.
This is another cultural product about “fearless women” who “speak truth to power” when they “just can’t sit back and watch helplessly anymore.” Reality opens with Winner (Sydney Sweeney) sitting in her NSA office while Fox News blares above her on the workroom televisions. It’s late-May 2017, and Trump has just fired James Comey; cut to black, cue credits, cut to Sweeney as Winner driving home from work on June 3, 2017. The movie plays out close to real time, with all dialogue taken directly from the FBI transcript of their search and arrest. When I watched Reality on Saturday—the sixth anniversary of Winner’s arrest—I’d forgotten what she even did. I knew she was a whistleblower, but I couldn’t remember in which direction… pro-Trump? Anti-Trump? Was there something crazy or weird with her, like that diaper astronaut lady?
No: The Intercept posted open calls for whistleblowers regarding any evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Winner printed out a relevant but classified article, and mailed it to them. Within two weeks, the FBI was searching her house. She was in prison for four years, and remains under supervision until November 2024 (how convenient…). What I loved about Satter’s film is its conceit: with all dialogue and behavior taken directly from the real arrest, there’s no space for speeches or bad writing—some might find Reality tedious or completely inert, but the reality of the arrest is precisely what makes this a compelling and effective movie. Plenty of movies feature scenes where cops grill someone who they know, and we know, is going to jail for a long time. But few movies are exclusively that, the chilly politeness escalating into heavy duty accusations.
Sweeney is excellent, along with FBI agents Marchánt Davis and Josh Hamilton, who keep it floating for 82 minutes. Most of it is them in Winner’s front yard and spare bedroom. Despite its pink pussy hat sensibility, it reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s early 2000s “Death trilogy,” particularly 2003’s Elephant. Sweeney and the agents have the same disaffected anxiety of the kids in that American high school masterpiece, and like Elephant, we know all paths lead to disaster.
Considering the dry and programmatic dialogue Reality, also that it’s essentially an 82-minute dramatization of an FBI transcript, it’s surprisingly tense, only slipping once, in the moment that reveals its dated reading of the situation: at one point, the agent played by Hamilton excuses himself to get some water for Winner, and she’s left alone with Marchant and another “unknown male” FBI agent. At this point, Winner knows she’s in deep shit, and the frame gets fuzzy, and innocuous small talk about her “big cat” evolves into a slow motion demonic laugh sequence, with Winner frozen in fear and the camera cutting to a low angle POV of these two big guys laughing at and looking down on her. Keep in mind Winner was never assaulted or molested during her arrest, and everything shown in the film is totally anodyne in terms of individual personal behavior—none of the male agents cross the line, but the movie must have that moment of men making women feel small.
Perhaps its formal inventions and tension are accidental, but Reality might just end up being the last decent cultural product of the Trump years, with last year’s She Said right behind. This is no Promising Young Woman abomination, and while its structure was refreshing, Reality belongs to the past, to a moment that lasted for too long.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith