For playwright and writer/director Tina Satter, it all starts with the words on the page. Satter’s feature directorial debut, “Reality,” an HBO original film that premiered on Max last month, stuns with a stranger-than-fiction story. The film is scripted verbatim from a real FBI interrogation transcript, one that slow-burns from mundane to intense. The person under question is Reality Winner (a remarkable Sydney Sweeney), a military veteran and former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a classified document concerning Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. One ordinary June afternoon, upon arriving at her Georgia home from a trip to the grocery store, Reality is confronted by two agents — Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis). The reason for their presence on her front lawn is unclear as they engage in pedestrian conversation, with topics such as pet care and powerlifting. Every little interruption and moment of small talk is reflected on the screen. Satter’s precise direction keeps the audience in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Anticipation builds as you are left to wonder how and when their conversation will escalate. The incremental unease is written across Sweeney’s face as she navigates (and challenges) figures of authority beneath her mask of composure.
The idea of Reality’s interrogation as a means of artistic expression has been explored before by Satter herself. Her play “Is This A Room,” which premiered on Broadway in the fall of 2021, put a spotlight on how such riveting dramatic material could be drawn from everyday minutiae. Given how concise “Reality” is, the material lends itself incredibly well to the medium of film. Satter keeps you in the confines of one day and limited use of space. When the FBI agents select a room in Winner’s house to begin the interrogation, that room becomes the primary source of claustrophobic tension. As the agents coax her into a confession and the walls close in, you hold onto the actors’ layered micro expressions all the more. Their work is captured wonderfully by cinematographer Paul Yee (whose credits include 2015’s “The Fits” and the upcoming comedy “Joy Ride”). From the close-ups and cutaways to the distorted visual effect of redacted dialogue, “Reality” speaks in a visceral language similar in rhythm to the interrogation itself. The docudrama expertly conveys microscopic rises and falls in human behavior to tease out big emotional reveals.
Since premiering at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival in February and releasing on Max at the end of May, “Reality” has been assembling strong reviews slowly and steadily. For awards pundits, the film has been hovering as a potential contender in the Television Academy’s Outstanding TV Movie category for a good reason. Beyond relevant political context, the biggest draw of “Reality” is that it’s an acting showcase for Sydney Sweeney. The two-time Emmy nominee, recognized in 2022 for her supporting performances on HBO hit shows “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus,” gives her most accomplished work as Reality Winner. Sweeney takes you on a journey of immense curiosity and gives voice to resonating gender dynamics as a young woman trying to stay alert in a space full of men. “Reality” works precisely through Sweeney’s perceptiveness to her surroundings.
While the Lead Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie category is packed with contenders this year, and Sweeney may be too late in the game to make the cut, the gradual conversation around her performance could boost “Reality” elsewhere. The Emmys’ picks for Outstanding TV Movie can be incredibly up in the air. This category has seen a wide range of winners over the past decade. From HBO’s “The Normal Heart” and “Bessie,” to three episodes of “Black Mirror” in a row (“San Junipero”; “USS Callister”; “Bandersnatch”), to “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on The Square” and last year’s “Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers.” “Reality” is a contender that harkens to HBO acting showcases that used to dominate wins in the category during the 2000s (such as 2001’s “Wit” starring Emma Thompson). It’s an intimate, minimalist chamber drama that demands and maintains your attention.
Given the series finale insanity of HBO’s “Succession,” Apple TV Plus’s “Ted Lasso,” and Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” last month alone, the decision to steer “Reality” as far away as possible from viewing competition seems to have been the best course of action. While the film may have premiered too late in the TV climate to have an uninterrupted moment of discourse, especially with all the new and returning shows this past month, people are discovering “Reality” incrementally. Plus, critical acclaim certainly helps, as does the film’s accessible runtime of 1 hour and 23 minutes. In the thick of award season with hours of television episodes to catch up on, “Reality” is a swift commitment. The film also benefits from entering a race that is still somewhat vulnerable.
Roku’s “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” has held onto the Outstanding TV Movie frontrunner status for the past few months. Additionally, titular star Daniel Radcliffe is in contention for Lead Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie. Though the film does feel to be a default pick considering this year’s mishmash of contenders — Hulu’s “Prey,” “Fire Island,” and “Boston Strangler,” NBC’s “Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas,” Disney Plus’s “Hocus Pocus 2,” Paramount Plus’s “Reno 911: It’s a Wonderful Heist,” and Netflix’s “Do Revenge.” The category has become a designated spot for miscellaneous small films that were not made for television in the first place but found homes on streaming services in lieu of theatrical runs. Following the reigning champ “Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers,” “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” would fit the bill of out-there wins. It’s also one of the few titles in contention to have already won top accolades (including the 2023 Critics Choice Award for Best Movie Made for Television and the 2023 PGA Award for Outstanding Producer of Televised or Streamed Motion Pictures). Though, like the majority of contenders, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is a 2022 release and perhaps not as fresh on voters’ minds.
While “Reality” is late to the Emmy game, this being the most recently released contender works in its favor. The afterglow of Sweeney’s acclaimed performance, in particular, is keeping it in the current conversation. Plus, praise surrounding the film as a strong feature directorial debut and for the way a real transcript was utilized as the foundation for Satter’s screenplay (co-written by James Paul Dallas). The film might not be as crowd-pleasing as its many comedic-driven fellow contenders, but it excels as a docudrama with a tour de force at the core. Anything can happen with the Outstanding TV Movie category, but one thing is certain: from 1991 onwards, HBO has not missed a slot and has won the category twenty times. If voters are looking for a dramatic alternative to a mostly upbeat section of potential winners, “Reality” fits the bill of serious prestige television.