Patrick Mulcahy on Reality and leaks
How much sympathy should we have for those who leak classified information? The individual has chosen to work for an organisation, be it a government or a private company, and must abide by the terms and conditions of their employment. The information that they handle is open to exploitation by others, weakening a government’s ability to negotiate, or a company’s share price, or even endangering lives.
The counter argument is that some information should be released because it is in the public interest. Governments and the people have a social contract; citizens need to know that their governments are not acting outside the law or against their interests. Companies should not market products that damage public health.
There is another issue too: whether disclosure will make a difference. A 2021 OECD study of trust in government in which 22 countries participated revealed that as many people trust government as do not; that is, four out of ten. Would disclosure really force reform, or would a government ride it out, relying on its power to ‘shape the narrative’?
The American film Reality, directed by Tina Satter, adapting her play Is This a Room? with co-writer James Paul Dallas, deals with a real-life case of whistleblowing. It consists entirely of verbatim dialogue exchanges that took place on Saturday 3rd June 2017 between 25-year-old NSA contractor Reality Leigh Winner and the FBI agents interrogating her – or, as they put it, engaging her in a voluntary conversation. Two and a quarter hours are telescoped into an 82-minute film, with the director imagining the blocking. Occasionally, and sometimes with a dramatic flourish, there are stylised impositions – words typed on a page, and at two moments when information is redacted, the protagonist disappearing from the screen entirely. At the end of the film, real people replace actors. Reality comes to the fore.
The film begins on May 9th, in the office where Reality (Sydney Sweeney) works. She is sitting in a cubicle viewing a document, while above her, two television screens show a CNN programme breaking the news that President Trump has fired FBI director James Comey, who was tasked with investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. Satter’s camera is static, so there is ambiguity about what Reality is doing. Cut to 25 days later, and we see her arrive at her house where she is approached by two FBI officers, Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis). They have a search warrant for her property, her car and her phone. Before they enter, they want to make sure the property is empty first. Reality has a dog that “hates men” and a cat hiding under the bed.
The early scenes focus on the social awkwardness of the situation. The warrant is served on a non-working day. Reality is wearing a loose top and skimpy shorts. We perceive her as vulnerable. The two officers have a protocol to observe; Reality shouldn’t enter the property first. The officers are also concerned about her weapons, which they need to secure. Reality is fully compliant, describing the make and location of her guns. She also wants to help move her dog, with a “good growl going”, to a pen outside.
It takes an hour before they begin the interview. More FBI agents arrive, including a formidable-looking officer described in a caption as ‘unknown male’. What follows is a conversation about documents that Reality downloaded – and here, the redactions come into play. Reality denies any wrongdoing, until information revealed to her forces a change to her story.
Were this a work of fiction, a screenwriter might have crafted an intricately plotted game of cat and mouse. Instead, the film focuses on Reality’s naivety. She holds out, hoping for the best. She wouldn’t leak information; she was trying to upgrade her security clearance. The officers ask about her language skills – she speaks Farsi, Pashto and Dari – and her fitness regime. We see the efforts they make to put her at ease, but also see through it.
Repeatedly the officers utter an assumption – Reality doesn’t seem “the type” to leak information, the words tinged with astonishment. As becomes apparent, Reality’s view of public service differs from their own. Her job is to protect the American public. Theirs is to follow procedure.
Because the film is based only on verbatim dialogue, it doesn’t expand into a debate about the efficacy of leaking. It does suggest that young people are particularly vulnerable; their loyalty isn’t baked in. The film also suggests that the threshold for effecting a change of government policy has risen. The reality – people are getting weaker.
Reality Winner has not become a cause célèbre like Edward Snowdon or Julian Assange. Yet her disclosure confirmed an important truth, one that many Americans choose to ignore. Even out of office, Trump’s popularity endures because of his maverick behaviour, but in the end, he is just one more rich guy owned by a richer guy. The film doesn’t describe a tragedy, rather a chasm.