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SXSW Review: “United States vs. Reality Winner” Makes the Case for Whistleblowers

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 23rd, 2021

Director Sonia Kennebeck of UNITED STATES VS. REALITY WINNER | Credit: Torsten Lapp

United States vs. Reality Winner (Sonia Kennebeck, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

Arrested in 2017 for leaking a document related to Russia’s hacking of the 2016 presidential election, former military contractor Reality Winner, as of this writing, still sits in federal prison (though a search of the Bureau of Prisons website reveals she is slated to be released on November 23 of this year). Sentenced under the 1917 Espionage Act, she joins the ranks of other recent government whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the former having taken refuge in Russia (oh, the irony) to avoid prosecution and the latter now free after almost four years in jail (Obama commuted her 35-year term). Curious why Winner did what she did? Look no further than United States vs. Reality Winner, the new documentary from Sonia Kennebeck (Enemies of the State), which follows its subject’s case from past to present. However one feels about folks who blow that whistle, her story makes for an engaging tale of action and consequence.

It also raises questions about citizen responsibility in the face of state action with which they disagree. And, in a democracy ostensibly “of the people, by the people, for the people,” should there be any kind of data that is so classified that its revelation by one of “the people” results in their incarceration? Who gets to decide what is illegal? Laws are important, as is national security, but so are civil liberties. Finally, who holds the gatekeepers to account if they abuse their positions? These are all vital issues of immediate concern to all.

Still from UNITED STATES VS. REALITY WINNER | Credit: Torsten Lapp

Even as Kennebeck searches for answers, she keeps her camera focused squarely on the human element, examining Winner’s behavior and her background. A veteran of the Air Force, Winner served for 6 years, learning Farsi, Dari and Pashto, which is how she ended up as a contract linguist for Pluribus. At some point, she came across a document that detailed Russian attempts to break into our election systems, then copied it and shared it with The Intercept, a news site devoted to investigations of corrupt power structures. Unfortunately, as that site’s journalists attempt to verify Winner’s information, they compromised her identity. Enter the FBI, followed, after a long delay, by a trial.

Interviewing Winner’s sister and parents, as well as Snowden, John Kiriakou (another whistleblower similarly betrayed by The Intercept), The Intercept editor Betsy Reed (who defends her publication despite its egregious mistake), and others, Kennebeck further explores how the case against her subject was built. Of particular worry is how Bobby Christine, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, used text and Facebook messages between Winner and her sister to bolster the prosecution. Who has not written things to loved ones or friends that, out of context, could seem, at best, questionable?

Reality Winner in UNITED STATES VS. REALITY WINNER | Credit: Torsten Lapp

Given the way politics worked during the Trump years, it should come as no surprise that Winner was avidly pursued – for leaking information since made widely available to the general public – just as the national media was increasingly writing about Russian interference in the election. A master deflector, our 45th president (or his enablers) was able to draw attention away from his own potential collusion and onto the leak. Well played, Donald, well played. Winner went to prison, and we all moved on. Did she deserve to? Kennebeck clearly thinks not. I tend to agree. But irrespective of how one might feel, all of us should think long and hard about the long-term consequences of unchecked government malfeasance. One thing is certain: in United States vs. Reality Winner, democracy mounts a valiant defense against tyranny.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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