SXSW 2021 Review: United States vs. Reality Winner

Year: 2021

Runtime: 93 minutes

Director: Sonia Kennebeck

By Joan Amenn

What happens when a young whistleblower reveals evidence that there was foreign interference in a US election? She is not hailed as a hero, as director Sonia Kennnebeck shows in this documentary. Despite Edward Snowden’s assertion that history would recognize her as such, Reality Winner has been serving a jail term for her actions. “United States vs. Reality Winner” (2021) is an infuriating look at a clear injustice done to a somewhat naïve NSA contractor that still manages to feel flat and unsatisfying in its analysis.

While it is obvious that certain government officials would not want any classified intelligence leaking to the public about allegations of election interference, this documentary asserts that the media betrayed Winner when she needed their protection of anonymity the most. As disturbing as the persecutions of the previous administration are to watch, they are already well known for this behavior. The press, on the other hand, has been presumed to be an ally against repressive policies aimed at silencing whistleblowers. When Winner sent the intelligence report to a New York news organization, they actually surrendered the original document with its attached metadata to the government. It’s a staggering scene in the film and even more astonishing is no member of the news staff interviewed gives any rationale as to why this happened. An editor apologizes and it is mentioned that funds were raised to help Winner’s defense. That the director did not press for any further explanation is just one of several irritating missed opportunities.

Winner deserved better than to be confronted by nine armed government agents at her home and questioned without first being read her Miranda rights. She deserved better than the character assassination she has received by such government representatives as US Attorney Bob Christine of Georgia, especially since she has been denied bail and trial. That she may have reacted impulsively or out of a lack of experience does not make her the “domestic terrorist” she has been portrayed to be. The Espionage Act that she has been charged with violating is directed toward matters of “national security” which certainly seems to encompass any evidence of a foreign power interfering in our elections. As it is, Winner has received the longest sentence of anyone who has been convicted under the Act. This certainly begs the question of whether she was railroaded and made a scapegoat precisely because she is a young woman in an administration that has a history of lacking accountability.

Winner’s mother is the center of the film since Winner herself could not be interviewed personally. In contrast, Timothy McVeigh, who certainly was a domestic terrorist responsible for the deaths of nearly two hundred people, was permitted to speak to journalists. This detail and many others that would serve as insight as to why Reality took the action she did and why it would be so imperative to silence her are not raised here. Ultimately, “United States vs. Reality Winner” is an overview that raises questions but comes up short on answers. We may have to wait for her release to get those from Reality herself.


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