A good biopic should feature an engaging premise and present it in an inventive manner. Audiences may or may not be familiar with the story of Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran and NSA contractor who was arrested in 2017 for leaking confidential information. Whatever they know – or think they know – is given a fresh spin with Director Susanna Fogel’s semi-comedic take on the curious character, who expressed a lifelong disdain for society and its various institutions and then found herself on trial for allegedly letting those attitudes push her to do something unethical, or, at the very least, illegal.
Winner opens with its protagonist (Emilia Jones) rewinding to a formative time in her life when she was a child, explaining that, if prosecutors believe that what happened to her then was relevant to her actions as an adult, audiences should know about them, too. Taught by her charismatic father (Zach Galifianakis) to question everything she’s told and to protest objectionable standards that others have accepted, the driven Winner soon enlists in the Air Force after teaching herself multiple languages. Desperate to go to Afghanistan to make a real difference, she instead finds herself sitting at a desk translating conversations that may or may not contain information the U.S. government needs to hear.
This is the second project about Winner released within the past year, following Tina Satter’s Reality, starring Sydney Sweeney and released on HBO following its Berlin debut last February. While this film is much more comprehensive and deals with Winner’s entire life, it’s unclear if audiences will be eager to revisit this character so soon after another well-received portrait. The bigger appeal may be the reteaming of Fogel and her Cat Person star Jones, who reunite for another humor-heavy look at something that, taken another way, could have been conceived entirely as a dark and dreary drama.
Jones is enjoying an incredible run with four projects in four years at Sundance, beginning with the Oscar-winning CODA in 2021 and last year’s double-feature Cat Person and Fairyland. She brings a unique sarcastic nature to Winner, ready with a quip about just about anything and always more than happy to complain about something, especially if she knows it will make someone else upset. Whether she truly becomes Winner is a more open-ended question, but she’s a terrific lead who offers plenty of entertainment as this anti-establishment warrior determined to blaze her own path. She’s quick and funny, and should keep getting roles just like this that allow her to utilize those traits.
Jones has great scene partners in the dependable Galifianakis, a noteworthy choice for this role given his comedy background, Connie Britton as her mother, and Kathryn Newton as her sister. She’s truly the star of the show and handles all her material very well. Where the film starts to falter, however, is when Winner is arrested and her life takes a jarring and depressing turn. Audiences may not feel prepared for that stark change in tone, presuming that a film which frequently offers fake-outs, like shots of Winner finally getting sent to Afghanistan as promised, before revealing that she’s actually headed nowhere, would find a happier way to resolve its story.
But this is based on real events that are recent enough to not yet have been fully judged by society, and to depart from them would have been suspicious at best and malicious at worst. This is a decidedly snarky and entertaining read of Winner’s trajectory to that fateful decision that changed her life, and it’s possible that the real Winner does look back on everything that happened with a lighthearted nostalgia. As a film, it’s fun until it isn’t, which might make for a disjointed and less than fulfilling experience for some viewers. Jones continues to deliver regardless of the material, and what Kerry Howley gives her in her first screenplay is full of wit. Real life isn’t always rosy, and this film deserves some points for fidelity to the truth even if an alternate ending might have fit better with its tone.
Awards Potential: Unlikely
Box Office Potential: Depends on pickup
Overall Score: B
Winner just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and hasn’t yet been picked up for distribution.
Company: United Talent Agency
Cast: Emilia Jones, Connie Britton, Zach Galifianakis, Kathryn Newton, Danny Ramirez
Director: Susanna Fogel
Writers: Kerry Howley, Susanna Fogel
Producers: Amanda Phillips, Susanna Fogel, Shivani Rawat, Julie Goldstein
DP: Steve Yedlin, ASC
Production Designer: Sara K White
Costume Designer: Anastasia Magoutas
Editor: Joseph Krings, ACE
Score by: Heather McIntosh