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Emilia Jones, Connie Britton, Zack Galfianakis, Kathryn Newton, Danny Ramirez

Director(s): Susanna Fogel


At once heartwarming and hard-hitting, Winner captures a depth of character, nuance of ideology, and historical detail that brings Reality Winner’s story to the screen with vibrancy and emotional thrust. Rarely can a true story be adapted so cinematically and with such fidelity to its subject matter. Weaving together the story of one unique family and a political landscape that has abandoned truth, Winner is a refreshing ode to people who have conviction and are willing to sacrifice to prove it.

Writer-director Susanna Fogel returns to the Premieres section with this tender political drama after bringing Cat Person to the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. 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.

Written By Darren Zakus

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Winner tells the true story of Reality Winner, the young woman who would make worldwide headlines after disclosing to the public that Russia managed to hack the 2016 United States Election, that with an incredibly strong cast and a humorous and enjoyable coming of age styling to the story, helps to create one entertaining film from start to finish.

In recent years, whistleblowing on government agencies and their coverups has become a bit more commonplace with the actions of individuals like Edward Snowden and Reality Winner. Whether you agree or disagree with their actions, as there is no question what these individuals have done is illegal, the lies revealed and the information that has been gained from their actions no doubt has changed the way that people view their government and caused them to be more critical of the messaging from their governments. Naturally, documentary and narrative filmmakers have gravitated to telling these stories in film, as there is so much to explore from who the whistleblowers are as individuals, the information they uncovered and how they outed their government’s dirty secrets to the world, and the effects of their actions on society as a whole. Winner marks the third film about Reality Winner, the American intelligence officer who alerted the public to the Russian tampering of the election machines in the 2016 election that saw Donald Trump win the presidency. The film sees writer and director Susan Fogel reunite with star Emilia Jones, who previously collaborated together on last year’s Cat Person, to tell Reality Winner’s life story beyond just her leaking of classified documents.

The film tracks Reality Winner’s life in a traditional biopic structure, starting with her early and defining childhood moments and chronologically leading up to the actions that made her a name that would become recognized across the United States. While the structuring of the film is nothing unique, Fogel puts her own spin on Reality’s story that allows this film to break the traditional biopic mold. Fogel and her co-writer Kerry Howley infuse their screenplay with a coming of age feel, focusing more on the events and relationships that shaped Reality into the young woman that broke the law to disclose the secrets her government was hiding, rather than focusing on the leaking of the classified documents and the fallout of her action. The film does cover this, but does not begin to do so until the film’s third act, allowing the focus to remain on Reality as an individual and not a whistleblower. When combined with Jones as Reality providing a humorous narration of the film that captures Reality’s incredibly funny and distinct personality, Fogel ensures that while the structuring of the story is your traditional biopic, the experience watching it feels fresh from the usual political thriller biopic that his type of story naturally lends itself too.

If there is one downside to the screenplay, it is the handling of the actual document leaking and the effect it had on Reality’s life. While the film does justice to the development of Reality on screen by focusing on her outside of the document leaking in the first two acts, the film does move very quickly through the actual leaking and the ramifications in the last half an hour of the film. It only allows a cursory level of the events to be portrayed on screen and how they affected not only Reality and her family, and while those who lived in the United States and saw more of the story play out in the news may not be as affected by this, those international viewers not as familiar with her story will feel its quick covering of this subject matter. It never provides the deeper portrayal of these events that viewers will want from the film, only giving them just enough to get the broad strokes of the story without providing more insight at this point. It’s a relatively minor issue, though one that could have been lessened with an additional ten minutes of screentime in the final act, but never for a second does it distract from the strong film Winner is.

The film itself hinges on Jones’ lead performance as Reality Winner, and within minutes of seeing Jones on screen as Reality, you know that she has nailed the performance. Jones is almost unrecognizable as Reality, transforming her body to portray this incredibly fit and physically strong young woman, but it is the heart she brings to the role that makes her performance a winning one. Jones captures the direct and slightly rough around the edge personality of Reality, but infuses it with warmth, caring and a strong moral compass that lets you know who Reality truly is as an individual and not just the individual you read about in news headlines. It’s yet another terrific performance from Jones, best known for her lead performance in CODA, that continues to prove what an exciting young talent she is.

While the success of a film can hinge on one single performance, you need equally strong supporting performances to not only bolster the central performance, but to truly flesh out the story and all of its characters. And with a supporting cast of Connie Britton, Zach Galifianakis, Danny Rameriz and Kathryn Newton, it comes as no surprise that the supporting performances in Winner are outstanding. Galifianakis gives an excellent performance as Reality’s father Ronald Winner in a rare dramatic role for him, but one that relies heavily on his talents as a comedic actor. The film gives him some good comedic moments to work with where he shines, but his big dramatic moments with Jones are incredibly powerful and showcases his range as an actor. Ramirez is great as Andre, Reality’s first serious boyfriend with a charm and calming screen presence that balances out Jones’ performance. While she may have the least amount of screentime, every time Newton is on screen as Reality’s sister Brittany, she wows with a powerful performance that shows the strength of the sisterly bond between Reality and Brittany. Especially the one scene she shares with her character’s husband after Reality is arrested for leaking the documents, which is a beautiful and caring moment that helps to create one of the most memorable scenes of the entire film. Though, the film’s most valuable player to no one’s surprise is Britton as Reality’s mother Billie. Britton can do no wrong in a motherly role with her natural warmth and caring personality that has endeared her to audiences over her entire career, easily allowing her to capture the heartbreak within Billie as her marriage to Ronald is struggling while also trying to support Reality despite her daughter refusing to see things from her perspective. It’s the perfect role for Britton, one in which she dazzles every second in and helps to create the most emotionally powerful moments of the entire film as she becomes Reality’s voice to the world once she is imprisoned.

Biopics are never going to capture the entire story, and it comes down to the choices of the creative team to focus on what is important for their vision of the story they want to tell. You cannot fault Susanna Fogel and her team, as they achieve the coming of age take on Reality Winner’s life that helps audiences to understand that values and life experience that led Reality Winner to disclose top secret information to the press, but with a little bit extra runtime, it could have been something truly extraordinary. Led by a terrific and transformative performance by Emilia Jones as Reality Winner with an incredible supporting cast featuring two outstanding performances from Connie Britton and Kathryn Newton, Winner is a very good counter to the more traditional political thriller style of film that Hollywood would have turned her story into, delivering a film that is both fresh and traditional within the biopic genre.

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