By Veronika Lee Claghorn
“The United States makes it really hard to help people,” says Reality Leigh Winner’s character in the movie about the real-life Winner, made famous for revealing government secrets about Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In real life, Winner, a U.S. Air Force veteran and former NSA intelligence officer, was imprisoned for leaking intel that confirmed the government was aware of the interference. Her story is retold in a dark comedy starring Emilia Jones, and premiered on January 20 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
“Reality [Leigh] Winner leaked information about a reality denier who tried to influence the election to support a reality host who is detached from reality. So now the winner is the loser and this loser who helped this loser win is the winner and that’s our reality,” Seth Meyers joked in 2017.
Director Susanna Fogel’s Winner is a coming-of-age story about following your heart, loathing your little sister, falling in love with linguistics and boys, being jaded by systems of oppression, obsessive compulsion, oppositional defiance, and being an idealistic daddy’s girl. All while working for the NSA and trying to fight the power while staying true to yourself. Here’s a warning for maximum tears to all the elder sisters who count their dads amongst their heroes despite all of their faults: Ronald Winner, played by Zach Galifinakis, says to his daughter, with a twinkle in his eye, ““You’re still you and you can still do some damage.”
Jones (CODA) is reunited with her Cat Person director Fogel as she plays Winner like a three-chord punk rock riff. She’s pathologically punk. She’s fluent in Farsi and sarcasm. Her mom, Billie, played by Connie Britton, just doesn’t know what to do with her.
“It was exactly seven years ago this week [on my way to Sundance on a flight] I was reading New York Mag’s ‘America’s Biggest Terrorist Wears a Pikachu Bedspread,’” says director Susanna Fogel (Cat Person, Sundance 2023). “It caught my attention and I was obsessed with it immediately… the way Kerry [Howley] wrote it, and obsessed with this person. I cold-called Kerry and said, ‘I want you to write this movie’ and she said, ‘I want to write this script.’”
Of Reality, Howley quips, “Every anecdote I found [about her] made her compelling… the conflict about someone who can’t help, but help is a theme that is so under-explored… we weren’t interested in an espionage thriller.” Fogel adds that she is tired of political films that are “all male and serious.” Before pointing out the real-life Reality and her mother, Billie, in the audience, the director describes Reality as “an iconoclast and funny and quirky, not a movie trope.”
In a surreal moment, the audience stood up for the Winners and applauded enthusiastically as the pair looked on in seeming astonishment.
When asked how she prepared to portray the real-life rebel, Jones says, “I was able to go to Texas and spend time with Reality. It was so fun. I got to meet all the animals she rescues — her dogs, cats, and her horse, Trouble… I was able to get to know Reality as a person. We were trying with this movie to humanize Reality and show that she was more than just a name and a headline. I love that Reality doesn’t mince her words and she’s really honest. I really do love you, Reality, and I loved playing you.”
In his striped cardigan with arms behind his back, Galifianakis leans forward to speak.
“I just took an acting class online.”
To see more of the magic of the 2024 Festival, click here.