Reel Reviews | Winner (Sundance ’24)

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

The tragic story of Reality Winner is revisited with Emilia Jones playing the conflicted whistleblower in the drama, Winner.

Reality Winner (Emilia Jones) is a brilliant young misfit from a Texas border town raised by her almost psychotic doomsday prepper father (played brilliantly by Zach Galifianakis) and loving mother Billie (Connie Britton) to be an independent free-thinker.  Imagine their shock when Reality joins the United States Air Force for purely humanitarian reasons, reasons that end up not being realized.  Disgruntled and disgusted with her military service, Reality she leaves the military and finds her morals challenged while serving as an NSA contractor. A sarcastic, gun-loving, vegan, yogi, and CrossFit fanatic, Reality becomes the most unlikely and unconventional whistleblower who ends up being prosecuted for exposing Russia’s hacking of the 2016 election.

This story of Winner was written by Kerry Howley and directed by Susanna Fogel. Susanna Fogel is a director and screenwriter known for Cat Person, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. She cowrote the comedy Booksmart and wrote and directed The Spy Who Dumped Me and Life Partners, which she workshopped at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. In television, her credits include the limited series A Small Light, The Flight Attendant, and The Wilds.

In the beginning, Winner starts as a heartwarming and interesting story.  Fogel and Howley create an initial portrait of Reality Winner as a sometimes cold, but strait-laced hard-hitting ingenue.  Throughout the rest of the movie, Reality meanders along not getting what she wants or intends to want.  Winner attempts to capture the depth of character, nuance of ideology, and historical detail that brings her to defy both convention and law.

Sundance regular Emilia Jones (star of CODA, Fairyland, and Cat Person) once again leads up Fogel’s terrific cast including Connie Britton, Zach Galifianakis, Kathryn Newton, and Danny Ramirez.

Winner recounts the story of Reality Winner in a biopic fashion.  The problem is that with this politically charged story, the movie seems to remove the extremely political portions of the tale from view.  For most of the movie, the viewers are taken on a nebulous journey devoid of any real intention.  The script and direction of the film feel more like a fairy tale story than a political thriller, which the story truly is. 

Despite the great work of Clarke in playing the role of Winner, the film suffers from a lack of seriousness and conviction though Reality’s story is full of it.  Essentially, Winner’s portrayal suffers from the portrayal of her as a non-committed militant and not a product or victim of the environment around her.  Therefore the movie falls flat and leaves the viewing audience without an understanding of the character or what should have been the purpose of the film altogether.

Grade:  C-