Who is Reality Winner? The dramatic true story behind the whistleblower film

Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney plays a real-life whistleblower in new movie Reality

Sydney Sweeney stars in Reality. (Vertigo Releasing)
Sydney Sweeney stars in Reality. (Vertigo Releasing)

Euphoria breakout star Sydney Sweeney will soon be seen in Reality, a new feature film based on a shocking true story.

Spearheaded by theatre director Tina Satter in her movie directorial debut, Sweeney plays Reality Winner, the American whistleblower who leaked confidential information relating to the 2016 American election to the media when she was just 25 years old.

The story is not only based on real events but also the stage play Is This a Room which was also directed by Satter and used verbatim quotes taken from transcripts of Winner’s extensive interrogation by FBI agents.

Following its debut at February’s Berlin International Film Festival, Reality has already garnered a solid response from critics. Before it arrives in UK cinemas on Friday, 2 June, get clued up on the dramatic true story that inspired this whistleblower drama.

Who is Reality Winner and what did she do?

Reality Winner was arrested in June 2017. (REUTERS)
Reality Winner was arrested in June 2017. (REUTERS)

Reality Winner is a former member of the US Airforce and a translator for the National Security Agency.

Fluent in a number of different languages, including Persian, Dari and Pashto, she was hired as a cryptologic linguist after a spell serving in the United States Air Force.

In this role, Winner was required to intercept foreign conversations with the goal of providing valuable intelligence to the United States government. It was a skill that she was adept at and eventually, she left the Air Force in 2016 after receiving an Air Force Commendation Medal for her hard work.

Watch the trailer for Reality

The next year or so saw Winner work as a CrossFit trainer before attempting to use her language skills to help refugees. However, when this pursuit failed she eventually went to work with a small company that provided services to the National Security Agency, a role that allowed her to put her still-valid top-secret government clearances to use.

It was whilst at this job that Winner came across a classified document that detailed the extent of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 American election and its determination to hack into voting websites and voter registration databases using sophisticated phishing scams.

Read more: Sydney Sweeney hopes film humanises ‘complex’ whistleblower Reality Winner (Variety, 3 min read)

Feeling strongly that this was something the public should be made aware of, Winner anonymously emailed the document to media outlet The Intercept.

Whilst usually being known for its ability to protect its sources, the publication, unfortunately, failed in doing so on this occasion, resulting in Winner’s arrest on 5 June, 2017 before The Intercept had even published its report.

What happened when Reality Winner was arrested?

Reality Winner was jailed for five years and three months. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP)
Reality Winner was jailed for five years and three months. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP)

Failing to request a lawyer and not read her Miranda rights by FBI agents, Winner was ushered into an unused room inside her Augusta, Georgia home and interrogated for approximately an hour.

This led to her arrest under the Espionage Act and overseen by the Trump administration, Winner was ultimately sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison, a sentence that marked the longest stretch given as punishment for leaking government information to the media.

Read more: From Ellsberg to Assange: Jack Teixeira joins list of alleged leakers (Guardian, 6 min read)

While this was playing out, infamous Wikileaks founder Julian Assange called upon the public to support Winner and even offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could provide details on the person who had helped provide the United States government with her identity.

Sydney Sweeney stars in Reality. (Vertigo Releasing)
Sydney Sweeney stars in Reality. (Vertigo Releasing)

Winner left federal prison in 2021 thanks to good behaviour and was moved to a transitional facility before carrying out the remainder of her sentence under house arrest.

Despite the Trump administration overseeing Winner’s sentence, the former President Tweeted sympathetically about her cause in an attempt to undermine an Attorney General in 2018.

Later, when it was discovered that Trump himself had copies of confidential documents at his Mar-a-Lago home, Winner labelled the situation “incredibly ironic.”

Reality will be released in UK and Ireland cinemas on 2 June.