In June 2017, Reality Winner, a US whistleblower, received the longest prison sentence ever imposed on a person for leaking American government secrets. In her case, for releasing a much-disputed document alleging Russian interference in the US presidential election of 2016. Tina Satter, the writer and director of this film based on the case, wisely eschews the polarised politics underlying it in favour of a nail-biting reconstruction of Winner’s interrogation and arrest.
In 2019, having consulted Winner and her family, Satter first turned the interrogation transcript into a verbatim play, Is This a Room. Its title took a disorienting quote from one of Winner’s interrogators: “Is this a room? Is that a room?”
As Satter’s film adaptation opens, Winner, brilliantly played by the Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney, is a squeaky-clean 25-year-old former United States Air Force linguist and National Security Agency translator specialising in Farsi, Dari and Pashto. When she returns home to discover two FBI agents (Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) waiting for her, she is mostly concerned for the welfare of her dog and cat, as other federal employees barge into her house.
Initially, the conversation sounds like banter, as the agents chat about her CrossFit achievements, her high-flying security clearance and her animals. By the time the trio move to a backroom “with more privacy”, the small talk curdles into something more sinister. It can often sound like a Harold Pinter play with references to yoga.
Satter, whose first feature film this is, finds inventive ways to dramatise redacted words. Flashes of the real Winner’s Instagram account add to the sense of authenticity. Hamilton and Davis seem to loom and glower even when they are all smiles.
The film is ultimately a showcase for Sweeney, however. You can see the panic rising beneath the young actor’s calm, collected front. It’s a brilliantly measured turn that couldn’t be further from Sweeney’s iconic breakdown as the vulnerable Cassie on Euphoria.