Playwright Tina Satter’s Is This a Room is among the extra anomalous standouts of latest New York theater seasons. A 65-minute verbatim docudrama molded solely out of FBI interrogation transcripts resulting in the arrest of NSA whistle-blower Actuality Winner, it was propelled by stellar opinions from a small downtown area to a number one Off Broadway home, earlier than touchdown on Broadway for a brief run in 2021 that consolidated its essential success even when it struggled commercially.
Exhibiting the identical uncanny capability to attract suspense out of a ripped-from-the-headlines state of affairs with a identified consequence, Satter has tailored the play as a characteristic that makes for a forceful intestine punch of cinema vérité.
The Backside Line
Fact is terrifying.
By swapping the stage manufacturing’s minimalist design for a scrupulously practical illustration of the home in Augusta, Georgia, that Winner was renting in 2017, Actuality, because the movie has been retitled, dangers diminishing the uncomfortable convergence of the banal and the surreal that characterised the play. But when something, that uneasiness is much more potent on the display screen.
Satter reveals unfaltering command of the medium for a first-time movie director, notably in her penetrating use of the closeup, which makes the steadily uncovered uncooked nerves of Sydney Sweeney’s exceptional efficiency within the title position all of the extra disturbing to witness.
The elements of the interrogation detailing the particular materials Winner leaked to the media have been redacted within the authentic transcript, which Satter conveys by switching for temporary moments to a clean display screen. However anybody who adopted the information cycle is aware of that the 25-year-old former Air Power intelligence officer shared a doc containing proof of Russian cyber interference within the 2016 election.
That reality anchors the drama within the years of the Trump administration, which went to nice pains to maintain that info out of the general public sphere. It additionally suggests why Winner was given such an unusually harsh sentence of 5 years and three months jail time. Whereas she was granted supervised launch after 4, it stays the heaviest sentence ever imposed beneath the espionage act in opposition to an American citizen for leaking categorised paperwork.
Satter and co-writer James Paul Dallas open out the play judiciously for the display screen, with out in any means straying from its grounding in each phrase that was mentioned, each little bit of throat-clearing or nervous laughter, each awkward pause, on June 3, 2017. Essentially the most notable addition is a short prologue, with Actuality seen from behind in an workplace cubicle at a small agency beneath contract to the Nationwide Safety Company, the place she labored as a translator. Fox Information blasts from each TV monitor within the room, as particulars are revealed of Trump firing FBI director James Comey.
When Actuality returns dwelling from the grocery retailer three weeks later, she’s greeted in her driveway by two FBI officers, the relaxed, regular-guy Garrick (Josh Hamilton), wearing Saturday-afternoon dad-wear, and his sterner, extra taciturn associate Taylor (Marchánt Davis), whose buff physicality is instantly threatening. They change small speak earlier than casually revealing that they’ve warrants to go looking her home, automobile and cellphone attributable to potential mishandling of categorised paperwork. An unnamed third officer (Benny Elledge) arrives quickly after, a hulking presence made extra unsettling by his silence and his belittling stare.
There’s virtually a comic book aspect to their stiffness as they negotiate Actuality’s considerations about her rescue canine, which “doesn’t like males,” ultimately permitting her to carry the animal out into the yard and safe it on a leash. The identical goes for his or her questions on her cat, with the group of search officers that descend commonly reporting that it’s both on or beneath the mattress.
However the sly humor of the scene is undercut when the brokers enable Actuality to place her perishables away within the fridge and there’s barely area for her small body with all of the testosterone within the kitchen. The sense of dread mounts as different officers stretch crime-scene tape across the perimeter of her yard.
Hamilton is terrific at exhibiting the pressured bonhomie of Garrick’s practiced “good cop” routine; there’s a quasi-jokiness as he questions her about weapons in the home — she has three, together with a pink AR-15 — about her CrossFit coaching and yoga, and her fluency in Farsi, Dari and Pashto. He appears virtually sympathetic when she confesses her frustration at being rejected for deployment to Afghanistan as a translator.
However in the identical means that Sweeney’s physique language dissolves from free to inflexible to damaged, slowly crumbling inside because the seriousness of their go to turns into clear, Hamilton and the opposite actors regularly drop all pretense of this being a courtesy name designed to assemble info. It’s apparent from the transcript that they already know just about every little thing they should know, and the methods wherein that information is slowly disclosed makes for nail-biting drama.
Actuality’s home is barely furnished, and the primary a part of the interrogation takes place in a shabby again room that’s utterly empty. She repeatedly apologizes for the dearth of a spot to take a seat, as in the event that they’re invited company, however that enables Satter to play with the spatial and bodily dynamics in artful methods as the lads loom round her.
One of many heartbreaking features of Sweeney’s layered efficiency is the delicate indications of Actuality’s consciousness that Garrick’s nice-guy act is mere skilled position play. However she goes together with it as a result of doing in any other case would imply dropping the final of her defenses.
Her interactions with the opposite brokers are extra unequivocally intimidated, inflicting her to shuffle nervously and at instances collapse in on herself like a ragdoll. Satter rightly trusts her actors and her textual content to present dramatic life to Actuality’s ordeal with out technical distractions, the one gildings being Nathan Micay’s prickly ambient rating and occasional sound distortion to place us contained in the protagonist’s head.
Whereas the motion unfolds over lower than two hours in a semblance of actual time, the spiral of tragedy feels full-bodied, regardless of the place you stand on Winner’s actions. It’s shattering when she lastly breaks down, admitting that with all of the misinformation always being circulated, she requested herself if a pernicious assault on American election integrity shouldn’t be made public. And what was she doing in that job if she had no energy to reveal such anti-Democratic sabotage?
“Am I going to jail tonight?” she asks the brokers, getting boiler-plate evasive solutions earlier than they lead her exterior to be cuffed. A sickening feeling wells up in your abdomen as you watch this younger lady who made a questionable choice fret about who’s going to handle her pets. In Sweeney’s expertly calibrated efficiency, an entire departure from her work on The White Lotus and Euphoria, Actuality usually appears barely greater than an adolescent.
The movie concludes with the blustery overkill of a Republican spokesman spouting off to press about Winner being “a quintessential instance of an insider risk” whereas Tucker Carlson foams on the mouth in his trademark showboating outrage. It hits simply the fitting insidious notice to make this tense, impressively sustained thriller about energy, surveillance and ethical duty linger in your head with many questions. Prime of that listing is “What would I’ve performed?”