‘Winner’ Review: Emilia Jones Reteams With ‘Cat Person’ Director for Another Uncomfortable Seriocomedy

The U.S. government decided to make an example of Reality Winner, giving the former NSA translator a five-year prison sentence. So it’s only fair that director Susanna Fogel should be able to make an example of her too — only this time, to very different ends. “Winner” is well acted, well told and … well, a tough sell to people tired of politics. It’s not a typical whistleblower movie, like “The Insider” or “Official Secrets” (both excellent), but more of a prickly character portrait, imbued with humor and a headstrong sense of defiance (courtesy of co-writer Kerry Howley, channeling Winner’s voice).

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Reality Winner has an unusual name, one that has proven ironic (as well as fodder for countless talk-show comics) since her act of defiance was made public. Last year, Tina Satter’s superb experimental indie “Reality” stuck to the facts of her crime, relying on the official transcript of her interrogation by FBI agents as its screenplay (the brilliance of Sydney Sweeney’s performance is all in the subtext). Now comes “Winner,” which stars Emilia Jones in the role, finding meaning in its subject’s surname: Reality Winner made a choice that upset the Trump administration, they threw the book at her, she did her time, and now, one could conceivably view her as the victor.

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Not that Fogel would have found the character interesting if it were that simple. Returning to Park City a year after unveiling her controversial “Cat Person” with a drama that’s provocative in myriad other ways, Fogel wants us to consider how Reality Winner is just like us, but also to recognize the facets in which she’s entirely unique. Presented thus, Reality amounts to one of the most fascinating characters to be found at Sundance 2024, precisely because of all the contradictions in her persona.

She exposed the truth, at great cost to herself. Would you have done the same? Do you even remember what Winner’s leak was about? (In a case of lying by omission, U.S. intelligence services had not disclosed that there was proof of Russian hacking in the 2016 election. So Reality released a classified report to a site called The Intercept.) The film’s weakest scenes are those in which Winner is shown making her big decision. Its strongest focus on her as a fiery and deeply conflicted human being.

To her family, she’s “Re” (rhymes with “bee”), a tough blond Texas gal who takes after her dad (Zach Galifianakis) in certain key respects. He’s an outspoken — but “all talk” — idealist, who encourages a certain amount of civil disobedience in his daughters. Older sister Brittany follows a more conventional path in school and life, whereas Reality seems determined to forge her own path.

First seen at age 9 (played by Annelise Pollmann), liberating puppies from a shopping-mall pet store, she decides young that the way to avert another 9/11 is to learn the language the terrorists spoke. Presented that way, she could be Captain America. The prosecutor at her trial described the same instincts as “terrorist tendencies.” You decide, “Winner” wants to suggest.

In high school, Reality wore a defiant pink streak in her hair. But she also agreed to join the U.S. Navy (no thanks to the bro-y recruiter who rolls up in his truck). That meant leaving Texas for colder climes, where Fogel shows her getting worked up when she sees a pet dog chained outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures. She confronts the neighbor, who does nothing, then goes back to liberate the animal with a sweet guy (Danny Ramirez) who hits on her at a local bar. They move in together — Reality, boy and rescue animal — but she’s single-minded about her career, calling it quits when an opportunity to volunteer abroad arises.

Both the dog stories and the dating material reflect the sort of fresh, specific details that Howley brings to a remarkably strong first produced screenplay. (Howley is best known for her nonfiction work, including superb investigative pieces on everything from Britney Spears to Erewhon for New York Magazine. Her 2017 article “Who Is Reality Winner?” served as the backbone for the film, which she co-wrote with Fogel, strengthened by meetings between the filmmakers and the real Reality.)

Credit also goes to Jones, obviously, who takes a character who’s abrasive and intense, who pushes away loved ones and rushes toward conflict, and emphasizes the aspects that we can find relatable … but also Reality’s neurodiverse way of approaching the world: She tough on others, but even more on herself — as represented by the push-ups, jogging and endless physical training. We all know people like this, who hold themselves to impossible standards, and who demand perfection from a deeply flawed world.

Fogel, Howley and Jones all work together to situate us inside Reality’s head. But it’s painful to see what Reality observes from her perspective: the casualties that result from her translation work (how mention of the word “package” can trigger a drone strike, even if the package in question is probably an innocent gift from father to son); the indifference of her G.I. Jerk colleagues; the way Fox News pundits spread falsehoods on the TV monitors NSA employees were obliged to watch, when the truth is right there at their fingertips.

It makes sense that “Winner” would try to justify Reality’s decision. The film plays close to the facts of her case. Those who saw “Reality” (or read the FBI transcript) can attest to the rigor of the interrogation scene, condensed to perhaps two minutes of screen time here. But it’s so closely aligned with her perspective that Reality’s own capacity to rationalize her actions determines the film’s logic as well.

That’s why Connie Britton, who plays her mother, Billie, adds such an important dimension. Her scenes take us out of Re’s head, revealing what someone who knows her daughter’s strengths and limitations would make of the situation. Britton and Galifianakis’ characters feel pride in what some — but hardly all, and certainly not the system — see as patriotism. In this thinking person’s film, that serves as the ultimate reality check.

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