A sense of rising U.S. governmental secrecy and punishment of whistleblowers is the primary political takeaway from “United States vs. Reality Winner.” Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary chronicles the incarceration and trial of the titular young intelligence specialist who leaked an NSA document revealing Russian attempts at interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections — intel the Trump administration was evidently keen on suppressing.
That her leakage of classified materials to media became the sole, punitive focus of prosecution, shutting out the issue of citizens’ need to know, provides the central moral conundrum here. But the film mostly backs away from a bigger picture of international espionage and possible Stateside collusion to focus on the personal level of Winner’s family, as her forced silence behind bars makes them her principal advocates. It’s an involving, empathetic if one-sided portrait whose limited insight into still-incendiary issues may actually smooth passage to broadcast, streaming and other platforms after its SXSW premiere.
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Reality Winner (yes, that is her birth name) is a Texas native who, as seen in old home movies, was studious, adventurous and altruistic from an early age. She declined a Fulbright scholarship to enlist in the Air Force, getting decorated during six years’ service for work as a cryptologic linguist aiding long-distance in Afghanistan drone activities. In 2016 she was honorably discharged, her continuing top security clearance snagging a translating job in Augusta, Ga., for private NSA contractor Pluribus.
It was there in early 2017 that she was shocked by an office-circulated intelligence report confirming rumored Russian cyber-warfare intrusions into local U.S. voting infrastructures during the prior election year. She copied and anonymously sent it to New York-based online journalistic platform The Intercept, which had already reported on Obama-era NSA intel leaked by Edward Snowden. Nearly four months later, in early June, she was arrested — and has remained in custody ever since.
It’s been argued that The Intercept itself carelessly expedited that arrest by returning the document for…