NSA Translator Reality Winner Is On Parole Until 2024

sydney sweeney as reality hbo max
What Is Max's 'Reality' Based On? HBO

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If you're a true crime junkie, buckle up, because there's a new show in town. MAX (formerly HBO Max) just dropped Reality, which documents the story of Reality Winner, a United States whistleblower who leaked information to the press regarding Russia's interference with the 2016 election.

Sydney Sweeney plays the titular role in one of her most chilling characters yet. The entire plot mostly takes place over the course of a single afternoon—during the interrogation that led to Reality Winner's arrest in June 2017. And the script actually includes original dialogue from the FBI transcript.

Reality is a slow burn, keeping the details of Winner's crime under wraps until the very last moments, so it's understandable if you have a few follow-up questions after viewing (or, if you're just curious). Here's everything to know about Reality Winner, and the true story that inspired the film.

Is Reality based on a true story?

Yes. Reality is an entirely true story, with a few degrees of separation from real life events. The movie follows former U.S. marine member and National Security Agency (NSA) translator Reality Winner.

In 2017 Winner leaked a classified document to online news organization The Intercept. The report included classified information detailing Russian military cybersecurity attacks on American voting software and local election officials ahead of the 2016 election, per TIME.

The film is based on writer-director Tina Satter's play, "Is This A Room?" which premiered in 2019, and used dialogue directly from a transcript of the official FBI investigation. Satter actually decided to develop the play because she believed the transcript read like one, per The New Yorker.

<span class="caption">Brittany Winner holding up a Zoom call of her sister, Reality Winner, watching the premiere of "Is This A Room?"</span><span class="photo-credit">Bruce Glikas - Getty Images</span>
Brittany Winner holding up a Zoom call of her sister, Reality Winner, watching the premiere of "Is This A Room?"Bruce Glikas - Getty Images

Who is Reality Winner?

Reality Winner, now 31, worked as an Air Force linguist and NSA contractor at Pluribus International in Augusta, Georgia. She is originally from Texas, and currently resides there on parole. In May 2017, she printed out a confidential report from her work computer and smuggled it out of the offices in her pantyhose. About a month later, she was arrested for leaking classified documents to The Intercept on June 3, 2017.

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Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison in 2018, per The New York Times. She was the first to be charged under the Espionage Act during the Trump administration, per The New York Times, and received the longest sentence ever imposed by federal courts for leaking information to the media, per USA TODAY.

Fun fact: Her father gave her the name "Reality" because he wanted her to be a "real winner," Reality director Satter told USA TODAY. Before her arrest, she worked as a part-time yoga instructor, loved her pets, and passed several security clearances to work in her position at Pluribus International, per The New York Times. However, later investigations revealed that she eventually leaked the information because of inconsistencies she was seeing depicted in the media, per USA TODAY.

intelligence industry contractor reality winner accused of leaking nsa documents pleads not guilty
Reality Winner exiting the courthouse in Augusta, Georgia in 2017. Sean Rayford - Getty Images

The transcripts are all real NSA tapes.

Like the play it is based on, Reality takes dialogue directly from the initial FBI investigation. On June 3, 2017, investigators were waiting for Winner when she arrived home from a grocery run, and proceeded to interrogate her about the leak.

Many tangents in the film actually happened during the initial 104-minute conversation between Winner and the FBI agents. In the official transcript, Winner put away her groceries, spoke about her pets, and worried about missing a powerlifting competition due to her arrest. Sydney Sweeney recently told Variety that the original dialogue is one thing that drew her to play Winner. "I was reading the dialogue like, ‘You can’t even write stuff like this!" Sweeney told Variety.

What happened to Reality Winner?

In 2021, Winner was released from prison on good behavior, but will be under parole until November 2024. Under her restrictions, she cannot talk to the press or go on social media, per The Intercept. She also needs prior approval to leave her home, even for small errands.

While in prison, the whistleblower contracted COVID-19 through a massive breakout at her facility. She also filed a sexual assault case against a guard. She currently spends her days at home taking online yoga classes and working as a part-time researcher for a documentary, per The Intercept.

Winner has not seen Reality yet, per USA Today, but still endorses the film. "[Winner] spoke again quite recently to us and said it’s still too traumatic for her to watch and (relive) that day," Satter told USA Today. "But she does approve of it and has been very supportive."

To learn more about Reality Winner, and the investigation that led to her arrest, you can stream Reality on Max now.

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