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‘United States vs. Reality Winner’ Review: Doc Defends the Whistleblower Who Leaked Russian Election Interference

Sonia Kennebeck’s engrossing documentary charts the case of an unlikely, low-level document leaker who provoked the full wrath of the Trump administration.

United States vs. Reality Winner
Courtesy of SXSW

A sense of rising U.S. governmental secrecy and punishment of whistleblowers is the primary political takeaway from “United States vs. Reality Winner.” Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary chronicles the incarceration and trial of the titular young intelligence specialist who leaked an NSA document revealing Russian attempts at interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections — intel the Trump administration was evidently keen on suppressing.

That her leakage of classified materials to media became the sole, punitive focus of prosecution, shutting out the issue of citizens’ need to know, provides the central moral conundrum here. But the film mostly backs away from a bigger picture of international espionage and possible Stateside collusion to focus on the personal level of Winner’s family, as her forced silence behind bars makes them her principal advocates. It’s an involving, empathetic if one-sided portrait whose limited insight into still-incendiary issues may actually smooth passage to broadcast, streaming and other platforms after its SXSW premiere.

Reality Winner (yes, that is her birth name) is a Texas native who, as seen in old home movies, was studious, adventurous and altruistic from an early age. She declined a Fulbright scholarship to enlist in the Air Force, getting decorated during six years’ service for work as a cryptologic linguist aiding long-distance in Afghanistan drone activities. In 2016 she was honorably discharged, her continuing top security clearance snagging a translating job in Augusta, Ga., for private NSA contractor Pluribus.

It was there in early 2017 that she was shocked by an office-circulated intelligence report confirming rumored Russian cyber-warfare intrusions into local U.S. voting infrastructures during the prior election year. She copied and anonymously sent it to New York-based online journalistic platform The Intercept, which had already reported on Obama-era NSA intel leaked by Edward Snowden. Nearly four months later, in early June, she was arrested — and has remained in custody ever since.

It’s been argued that The Intercept itself carelessly expedited that arrest by returning the document for verification to the NSA, which soon determined where and by whom it was copied. In any case, the 25-year-old found her home surrounded by 11 mostly-armed FBI agents who nonetheless played “good cop” in posing as her allies, coaxing a confession without reading her Miranda Rights or conveying the gravity of the situation. That exchange, released as audio to the filmmakers last month (though actors are used to voice parts of the transcript as well), constitutes a running thread.

The documentary’s remaining bulk is a chronological account of Winner’s long initial incarceration (she was repeatedly denied bail), trial and subsequent sentence, plus her family members’ constant support both privately and in the media.

We only hear Winner herself in phone calls with those relatives. Until the case (to which she ultimately pled guilty) was over, she and her attorneys were prevented from speaking publicly. As a federal prisoner now, she remains equally constrained. Her sentence was the longest ever imposed in U.S. Federal court for a similar crime. It is noted that the hitherto-rare charging of whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act greatly increased during the Obama regime. (Jon Kiriakou, Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden are interviewed here, the last still living under political asylum in Moscow.) Of four cases in which persons were arrested for leaking classified intel under Trump, three were related to Russia.

The elephant in the room here is whether our government is using the law to muzzle whistleblowers releasing information it shouldn’t be concealing anyway. The report Winner leaked has since become publicly available, and there’s no evidence its disclosure harmed national security. Ergo the harsh justice dealt her is hard to interpret as anything but a means to intimidate and silence future Reality Winners.

She remains an enigma here, not just because she can’t be interviewed, but because the primary focus on her understandably distraught, admirably pro-active family members paints too limited a personality picture. Supporters feel she was victimized by deliberate misrepresentation as some sort of “America-hating” radical. But we could use greater clarification of statements she made, whether in joking or otherwise, that were easily exploited by conservative politicos and pundits to make her appear so. (It would have also provided contextualizing background to survey reactions from Trump’s general base.) The film conveys that she was young, idealistic, perhaps reckless, while sidestepping her actual political beliefs. There’s no question, however, that powerful foes deliberately buried her stellar military service and other résumé items — plus the stolen document’s discomfiting content — to tar her.

Winner’s stepfather comments that such targeting of civilians who expose unpleasant government intel could theoretically happen to any American. “United States” is fortunate in that its subjects’ relatives are particularly articulate and relatable fellow citizens, as are most of the other voices here. Snowden, in particular, sums up the larger issues at stake in commandingly vivid terms. That whistleblowers generally benefit society is underlined by the news that Winner’s leakage directly led to stepped-up precautions that made the 2020 U.S. election the most secure on record.

Kennebeck (“National Bird”) does not disguise an advocacy stance, though closing text notes relevant governmental officials and agencies stonewalled all participation requests. As in her Toronto-premiered “Enemies of the State” last year, reenactments are discreetly utilized, mostly providing visual content during excerpts from the subject’s original FBI questioning. Maxine Goedicke’s editorial assembly is well-judged, other major contributions ditto. For all that “United States vs. Reality Winner” illuminates, there remain plenty of questions left over one hopes the MIA protagonist will be free to answer at last after her expected release late this year.

‘United States vs. Reality Winner’ Review: Doc Defends the Whistleblower Who Leaked Russian Election Interference

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (online), San Francisco, March 15, 2021. Running time: 94 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Codebreaker Films presentation. (World sales: Submarine, New York.) Producer: Ines Hofmann Kanna, Sonia Kennebeck. Executive producers: Wim Wenders.
  • Crew: Director: Sonia Kennebeck. Camera: Torsten Lapp. Editor: Maxine Goedicke. Music: Insa Rudolph.
  • With: Billie Winner-Davis, Brittany Winner, Gary Davis, Betsy Reed, Edward Snowden, Jon Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, James Risen, Keith Golden, Wendy Collins.