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United States vs. Reality Winner, SXSW Film Festival 2021, Sonia Kennebeck, whistleblower, Donald Trump
Reality Winner in 'United States vs. Reality Winner,' directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)

2021 SXSW Film Festival Review: ‘United States vs. Reality Winner’

This chilling documentary directed by Sonia Kennebeck indicates how far government goes to hide damning information. Using video clips of interviews and access to information not released before, the director exposes the facts about Reality Winner’s arrest and incarceration for leaking classified information. Ultimately, Kennebeck elucidates the scurrilous intent of the Trump Administration to lie and cover-up Russian interference to get Trump elected. In 2017, the 25-year-old Reality Winner took a stand. United States vs. Reality Winner in its World Premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival reveals what happened.

Reality Winner leaked documents shining a spotlight on Trump and the 2016 election. When Trump commented to the contrary about Russia’s help, extensively investigated in the Mueller Report, we can thank Winner’s patriotic, courageous actions. Her whistleblowing led to a high U.S. alert on election security in 2020. However, she still suffers retaliation, with the longest prison sentence of its kind under the Espionage Act. Kennebeck reveals how the Act, created in the early 20th century, was misapplied in Reality’s case and thus speaks to injustice, punishment and retaliation. Not only did she not receive bail, she sits in prison today under a plea deal. Her jailing and labeling as a traitor for heroism to alert the public about Putin breaching election security is cruel and unusual punishment.

Kennebeck obtained access to Winner’s interrogation by making a FOIA request to the FBI a few years ago. Happily, the Biden administration had the audio tapes released just in time. Incisively editing the tapes, Kennebeck intersperses them with video clips and audio of a phone call from Winner in prison. To supplement with salient information she uses interviews with NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake and John Kirakou. The film also includes interviews with Reality’s parents family and friends. Reality’s story comes to light, fully revealed.

When we hear the FBI agents questioning her alone outside and inside her house, we empathize. And we especially note her answers with no lawyer present.

The documentarian clearly portrays her risks, the danger she is in and her isolation. Additionally, the director and whistleblowers Drake and Kiriakou excoriate the betrayal by the reporters Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito. Winner mailed a copy of the classified document to The Intercept. Unconscionably, to “verify” the document, Cole and Esposito contacted the FBI, as if they didn’t understand it. As it was coded, encrypted, and dated, the FBI knew exactly who had access to it. This led to Winner’s subsequent arrest and being held without bail. That Donald Trump enjoyed election favor from Putin and received his hacking help and interference is clarified in light of this film and Winner’s brave actions.

When agents visited her house, tipped off by The Intercept’s reporters, their presence shocked her. Believing The Intercept stood by its sources, advertising themselves as a highly credibly online journal, she had anonymously sent the document to them. She should have gone to The Washington Post which appears to be one of the soundest, most secure papers for whistleblowers. The Intercept, made famous by Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras and others, discredited itself by harming Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, exposing those NSA whistleblowers to the FBI. During video interviews, Drake and Kiriakou disclose that Matthew Cole’s and Richard Esposito’s integrity as journalists remains questionable. They hint at subterfuge.

The audio tape discloses how the agents calmly and in a benign manner questioned her conversationally. Conveniently, they didn’t read her her Miranda Rights. And the questioning lasted for hours. Later, when Kennebeck asked why she cooperated, Winner reveals that she feared that they might harm her cat Mina. And she considered that she, herself, might be harmed. Though she remained calm, being alone she felt she had no recourse but to speak to them. Both Drake and Kiriakou, who understand the terror of interrogation, back her. Pointedly, they and others explain that the moment the FBI entered her property, unofficially they were casting a net to pressure an arrest. Winner knew that. They had all of the information they needed before they went to her house because of The Intercept.

After the arrest, Winner’s parents held protests and spoke to the media. Taking a stand for free elections, being punished with a five-year prison sentence under the guise of “endangering national security” seems harsh and politically motivated. A foreign power endangered national security. Winner blew the whistle and told the public to heighten the alert for the sake of national security. Indeed, those like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Michael Flynn, convicted for their criminal service to protect Trump, paved the way for Russian meddling and quid pro quos. Yet, Winner’s service to our democracy and the American people in warning us about breaches in election security deserves jail for being a traitor? The reversal is mind-boggling.

Kennebeck highlights Winner’s background, military service, brilliance with languages, and other qualifications. Indeed, she deserved her high security clearance. In contrast the former administration handed out security clearances undeservedly to unqualified friends and family like candy. On the one hand Winner leaks a document, jeopardizing her clearance for a vital moral imperative. Anonymously, she exposed to the public election penetration by a foreign adversarial power. That attack by Russia remains an extreme danger to our democracy. However, in a corrupt, criminal political culture, the morally bankrupt and corrupt distort right from wrong. Thus, Winner’s justified, heroic action to preserve our elections were judged by the corrupt in the courts and Trump’s Department of Justice.

Ironically, Kennebeck interviews Edward Snowden from his perch in Russia, the place of the meddling. His presence as a former whistleblower rings hollow. In contrast, Thomas Drake who supports Winner with the true grit of one who has been through suffering and retaliation, who stayed and fought for his nation, deserves a National Medal of Freedom. Of course, this won’t happen, but an impartial, nonpartisan eye would consider it and for John Kiriakou also. But above all, Reality Winner indirectly delivered our 2020 election to us with the public aware of Russian meddling because of her. She preserved our democratic free vote, but lost hers in prison. If that isn’t a protection of our democratic freedoms, then nothing will save our democracy.

United States vs. Reality Winner raises vital questions. When does leaking a document serve the public interest? Should exposing corruption be retaliated against or protected? The film levels judgment against those corrupt who support Winner’s jail time, despite the law-breaking and hypocrisy of the former administration. Kennebeck’s laudatory work is a must-see. Look for updates on the “codebreaker films” website about the next screenings:

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' ( 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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