Sundance Review: ‘Winner’

Emilia Jones, Zach Galifianakis, And Director Susanna Fogel Fail To Bring A New Perspective To The Reality Winner Story

The story of Reality Winner has been adapted three times now for the screen. The first, Reality, was a 2023 HBO movie starring Sydney Sweeney that followed the former US solider and NSA contractor’s two-hour interrogation by FBI agents for leaking classified documents. It was based on Tina Satter’s play Is This A Room and the script followed official transcripts carefully, though didn’t fully capture the young woman’s personality. The second film was Sonia Kennebeck’s 2023 documentary aptly titled Reality Winner, which covered her case and her life in depth, with interviews from other people charged under the Espionage Act. 

At this year’s Sundance, director Susanna Fogel (last year’s Cat Person) brings us another titular film about Reality Winner, this time taking the freed thirty-something’s last name. Winner starts at a formative moment of defiance for our lead character (Emilia Jones) when she frees a bunch of puppies from a mall pet store. Her father, Ron (Zach Galifianakis) looks on proudly while her mother, Billie (Connie Britton), and sister, Brittany (played as an adult by Kathryn Newton), disapprove. These moments of defiance build up as she grows up, learns Arabic languages and joins the military.

She eventually gets a job translating for the NSA, which she relaxes from by putting herself through punishingly hard workouts. If she could stay in a plank for five minutes, the transcript she turned over that day wouldn’t lead to people’s deaths. That sort of thinking drives her to look at the injustices of the world differently. Eventually, the 2016 election happened and she found a classified document indicating that despite government insistence, there was proof Russians interfered in the election. Like the puppies in the mall, she decides to release the document. 

Winner leaves out two major plotlines that would give a more complete picture of its subject’s life. The first is the role of The Intercept in her arrest. As the documentary explored, The Intercept failed to protect its source from persecution by the government. In Fogel and Howley’s story, the news outlet is reduced to a few lines of dialogue, which seems to put more of the blame on Winner. The second is the very important detail that Donald Trump was indicted on the same espionage charge that she spent five years in prison for. This goes back to the idea that Reality Winner’s crimes were inherently political and therefore a political stance should have been taken by the filmmakers. Fogel tries her hardest to present this story without a political lens, but in doing so it paints Reality’s actions as somewhat pointless, which if you followed her story, were anything but. 

The best thing about Winner is its exploration of Winner’s relationship with her father. Not explored in the previous film or documentary, the history between those two characters provides context into where her political beliefs came from, for the sake of this story and Winner’s story as a whole. That’s something that the documentary doesn’t touch. Galifianakis is obviously known for his broad comedic performances, however, I’ve always believed he’s at his best playing more complicated and somber characters. Similar to his role in It’s Kind of A Funny Story, he brings an intriguing melancholy to his character that draws you in and doesn’t let you go. 

Here’s hoping that the real Reality Winner feels that her story has been adequately told between all three films. If we do get another biopic, I hope time can give us a complete and clear picture of her, taking the best part of each film to create an even better biopic in the distant future.

Cortland Jacoby
A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.
sundance-review-winnerDespite a promising beginning and an inspired relationship between father and daughter, 'Winner' fails to capture the consequences and nuances of convicted NSA agent Reality Winner.