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SXSW Review: ‘United States vs. Reality Winner’

March 23, 2021Ben MK

How far would you go to expose the truth? For some, it all comes down to a matter of principle, while for others, the decision may be more dependent on the risks involved. Then there are those like Reality Leigh Winner, whose exact motivations may be less than clear but whose case nonetheless underscores just how far the government will go to silence those deemed to be whistleblowers.

Much like fellow whistleblowers Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou (all of whom are interviewed here), Reality Winner was branded as a traitor by government officials. Arrested in 2017 for leaking confidential documents about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections, the then-25-year-old NSA contractor and 6-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force found herself indicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to a 63-month prison term. However, questions still remain about the legitimacy of the charges and the role played by the journalists at the online publication to which Winner sent the documents, whose very handling — or mishandling — of the information might prove to have been the deciding factor in her incrimination.

Also featuring interviews with Winner's family, director Sonia Kennebeck's documentary stops shy of revealing any jaw-dropping details about the case. What United States vs. Reality Winner does do, however, is expose the injustice surrounding America's most unlikely — but certainly not its last — whistleblower.

United States vs. Reality Winner screens under the Documentary Feature Competition section at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 34 min.

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