'United States vs. Reality Winner' is sympathetic, but not essential

It's an informative whistleblower portrait that could be so much more.

Reality Winner, the former NSA contractor and Air Force Veteran who leaked documents about Russia's 2016 election interference, probably shouldn't be in prison. The US government was swift to arrest her in 2017 and sentenced her to five years in jail after she pled guilty a year later, but the moral case for her imprisonment is threadbare. Winner admitted to distributing classified documents to the press, but her act shed light on just how far Russian intelligence infiltrated a US voting software company. That information, which was being downplayed by the Trump administration, proved that the core of American democracy was easily threatened by foreign agents.

The documentary United States vs. Reality Winner, which premiered at SXSW this week, wrestles with the injustice of Winner's treatment and the need for stronger whistleblower protections. Directed by Sonia Kennebeck, the film covers Winner's childhood, her potential motivations for leaking the document, and how her family continues to fight for her release. The centerpiece is previously unreleased audio of Winner's interrogation by the FBI, where several armed agents came to her home and questioned her without reading any Miranda rights. It's a chilling sequence where overly friendly federal agents attempt to cajole more information, and possibly a confession from Winner before she could contact a lawyer.

AUGUSTA, GA - JUNE 8: Reality Winner exits the Augusta Courthouse June 8, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia. Winner is an intelligence industry contractor accused of leaking National Security Agency (NSA) documents. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Sean Rayford via Getty Images

Unfortunately, that's the only truly revelatory sequence from the film, which functions mostly as a bread-and-butter information dump for people who haven't followed Winner's case. There's the expected commentary from fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed far more damning details about the government's global surveillance program. The film would have been better served with an actual interview with Winner, who's currently expected to be released from prison in November. And, not surprisingly, there's no further commentary from the US government. After all, why would they contribute to a project meant to defend a notorious whistleblower?

The documentary puts much of the blame for Winner's arrest on The Intercept, as did many journalists at the time. The news organization, which broke the news about Russia's attempt to hack into US voting software, claims it received a classified NSA document anonymously in the mail. But Intercept reporters also apparently sent the original document to the government for validation, which included metadata that would have pointed straight to Winner. She was arrested the same day that report was published.

If anything, United States vs. Reality Winner serves as an encapsulation of how doggedly the government tried to punish the former intelligence specialist. During her trial, federal prosecutors used sarcastic texts between Winner and her incredibly supportive sister Brittany to paint her as an American-hating terrorist. That's what led to a spate of stories saying she wanted to "burn the White House down," and was likely part of what led to her receiving the longest sentence of anyone charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. The extent of her term is particularly galling after seeing how gently authorities have treated people involved in the January 6th Capitol Riot.

"When she comes out, 63 months [of jail time] is going to seem a very short time in the context of history that will honor her, for her service," Snowden says towards the end of the film.

Even without talking to the government or Winner herself, the documentary would be stronger if it interrogated America's harsh treatment of whistleblowers in general. After all, there's a difference between someone leaking classified information to rival countries, and Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo's release of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the government's lies about the Vietnam War. Snowden's commentary adds some weight to the film, but a deeper investigation would have made for a truly essential documentary, rather than one that's just educational.