Winner (2024)


Winner Review

Susanna Fogel is returning to Sundance with a piercing, investigative film that explores the internal and geopolitical forces that led Reality Winner to leak evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election. This time, director Susanna Fogel should be allowed to make an example out of her. Winner is well acted, well told and difficult for viewers who are tired of politics. It’s not a “whistleblower” movie in the traditional sense like The Insider or Official Secrets (both great), but more of a thorny character study suffused with humor and hardheaded defiance (courtesy of co-writer Kerry Howley, channeling Winner’s voice).

Reality Winner has an unusual name one that has only grown more ironic (and fruitful for late-night talk-show hosts) since her act of rebellion became public knowledge. Last year’s superb experimental indie “Reality,” from Tina Satter, stuck strictly to the facts of her crime, using as its screenplay the official transcript of her interrogation by FBI agents (Sydney Sweeney’s performance brilliance lies entirely in subtext). Now comes “Winner,” starring Emilia Jones as Reality and finding significance in its subject’s surname: That she was a person named Reality who made a decision that angered Donald Trump’s administration, they threw everything they could at her until she was behind bars and now you could argue she won. But if it were that easy, Fogel wouldn’t have been interested in telling this story.

A year after ruffling feathers in Park City with her provocative “Cat Person,” filmmaker Susanna Fogel returns with another drama bound to provoke this one asks us to consider how much like us Reality Winner is while also insisting on how profoundly different she must be from any other person we’ve encountered, let alone those attending Sundance 2024. She revealed the truth about herself when it cost most. Do you think you would have done the same thing? Or do you even remember what her leak was about? (U.S. intelligence services had neglected to mention that there was proof of Russian hacking in the 2016 election, so she released a classified report to The Intercept.) The film’s weakest moments are those where we see Winner making up her mind; its strongest show her as a passionate, deeply troubled individual. To family members, she is “Re” (rhymes with “bee”), an unflappable blond Texan who takes after her father (Zach Galifianakis) in certain key ways. He is an outspoken but “all talk” idealist who encourages his daughters toward limited acts of civil disobedience. Brittany, the older sister, follows a more conventional path through school and life; Reality seems determined to go her own way.

At the age of nine, she saw puppies in a pet store for the first time (Annelise Pollmann plays her). Knowing instantly that they had to be freed, she knew she wanted to grow up and become Captain America. The prosecutor at her trial called them “terrorist tendencies.” Take that as you will.

In high school, Reality wore a hot-pink streak in her hair. But she also signed up for the U.S. Navy; as Howley’s script notes, “she walked into the recruitment office tempted not by duty or service but by an arrogant bro-y recruiter who rolled up in his truck.” From Texas, which is where we meet this version of Reality, it meant moving somewhere colder and indeed Fogel shows us just how cold when he has her stumble upon a dog chained outside during a snowstorm and work herself up over it. She confronts the neglectful neighbor across the street; nothing changes. So she resolves to free it, teaming with a sweet bar buddy named Danny (Danny Ramirez) who’s got game but falls for him anyway so then they all move into together: Reality Winner, boy, rescue animal. But then her single-mindedness about career kicks back in again soon enough so off she goes volunteering abroad instead.

Jones deserves credit not only for working with such an intense character who pushes away loved ones and rushes toward conflict yet still remains relatable and neurodiverse: She tough on others, but even more on herself as represented by all those push-ups and jogs and hours of physical training. We know people like this too: They hold themselves to impossible standards and demand perfection from a deeply flawed world.

Together Fogel, Howley and Jones put us inside Reality’s head which is almost too painful once we see what there is to observe from its point-of-view: the bodies piling up around translation work (how saying “package” can trigger a drone strike even if the package in question is probably an innocent gift from father to son); the apathy of her G.I. Jerk colleagues; the TV monitors NSA employees were required to watch on which Fox News pundits would spread falsehoods when the truth was right at their fingertips.

It’s easy to see why this movie wants to justify Reality’s decision. The story sticks pretty close to the facts of her case. Those who saw “Reality Winner,” or read even just the FBI transcript, will be familiar with the interrogation scene it depicts, though they may not recognize it here: It lasted for hours. But still; it only showed what she could see and so only made real what she could rationalize.

That is why Connie Britton, who portrays her mom Billie, supplies such an vital aspect. Her scenes take us out of Re’s mind, showing what a person who apprehends her daughter’s potential and drawbacks would think about it. Satisfaction in things that are perceived as patriotic by some not all or the establishment is felt by the characters played by Britton and Galifianakis. This film for thoughtful people serves as a final wake-up call.

Watch Winner For Free On Gomovies.

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