Sundance 2024 Review: WINNER, Comic-Absurdist Biopic Succeeds Where Others Have Failed

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2024 Review: WINNER, Comic-Absurdist Biopic Succeeds Where Others Have Failed

The second narrative film and the third overall in almost as many years to cover similar, if not identical ground, Winner, a comedy-drama/biopic centered on the uniquely named Reality Winner, the ex-U.S. Air Force veteran, translator extraordinaire, and NSA whistleblower, fully delivers on its promise of an idiosyncratic character study and exploration of what, if anything, the idea and ideal of patriotism still means in 21st-century America.

Directed by Susanna Fogel (Cat Person, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Life Partners) from a screenplay by New York Magazine writer and University of Iowa professor Kerry Howley, Winner gives viewers rare insight into the Texas-born whistleblower from age 10 or 11 through her post-incarceration life. Framed as a rueful, cynical look back by Winner in voiceover mode, Winner cross-cuts between the myriad life choices, changing worldview, and CrossFit addiction that defined Winner and brought her to the momentous, life-altering decision to release classified documents about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

That look back includes seemingly innocuous choices, like an empathy-motivated, preteen Winner emancipating puppies from a shopping mall. It gets her in trouble, but it’s also the first sign of Winner's willingness to put her ideals into action, regardless of the consequences.

Those liberal, progressive ideals come courtesy of her father, Ron (Zach Galifianakis), a non-fiction author suffering from a seemingly permanent case of writer’s block. Those same, forward-looking ideals aren’t fully shared, however, by Reality’s mother, Billie (Connie Britton), or her sister, Brittany (Kathryn Newton). Both are far more grounded, conventional, and consensus-seeking than either Reality or her father.

While Reality dreams of leaving the suffocating, stifling confines of small-town life, Brittany has more traditional, conventional ones, like early marriage and starting a family. For Reality, settling down isn’t an option, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she’s repeatedly driven to learn more about the Middle East, up to and including learning Arabic.

From there, it’s only a hop, skip, and a recruiter’s push for Reality to join the U.S. Air Force as a translator-in-training, rapid rise through the translator ranks, and ultimately, regular shifts at an airbase translating real-time or near real-time conversations for potential terrorist activity.

More finely developed than her mates in the Air Force, Reality’s conscience starts to get the better of her, but where doubts about her mission or the collateral damage (i.e., human lives) that result from her translations, self-justifications follow. Reality’s exacting, self-judgmental nature shows itself in a psychological game she plays with herself: If she can push herself to reach another seemingly impossible CrossFit goal, then her actions are fully justified and she can put aside any ethical or moral qualms.

It’s only when Reality makes the lucrative jump from the relatively low pay of the Air Force to a high-paying gig as a contractor for the NSA that the repeated red flags raised by her conscience get the better of her. Witnessing the constant lies, misinformation, and disinformation about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and how they’ve distorted public opinion, Reality makes the fateful, though not fatal, decision to act on her conscience.

From that point on, Winner doesn’t deviate significantly from the known facts about the title character, focusing less on Reality’s arrest, incarceration, and trial, and more on the shifting attitudes of both her mother and sister toward Reality, as well as her treatment by the federal government. Like Reality, they’re forced by circumstances to make a key, potentially life-upending decision: side with Reality and face public/private criticism or go along to get along, leaving Reality to fend for herself against the might of the federal (in)justice system.

As essayed by the talented Emilia Jones, best/last seen in the Oscar-winning Coda, Reality is a mass of thorny, unresolved contradictions, obsessed with making the world a better place and herself the best, most moral person she can be. She’s all the more believable given Fogel’s unobtrusive direction and a well-balanced script that emphasizes the humor and pathos in Reality’s self-created predicament(s) and the absurdity of an American political system that allowed a failed businessman-turned-reality-TV-star to become the most powerful person in the world.

Winner premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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Connie BrittonEmilia JonesKathryn NewtonKerry HowleySusanna FogelWinner

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