A young woman stands in front of several American flags.

Sundance Film Review: Winner

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: Winner
Director: Susanna Fogel

Big Beach and ShivHans Pictures
Premiere: 01.20

One of the most important factors in bringing a true story to the screen is to get the audience invested in the reality of the story. In the case of Winner, the slyly satirical docudrama from director Susanna Fogel, the film delivers Reality with a capital R. 

After the 9/11 attacks, a nine-year-old Texas girl named Reality Winner (Annelise Pollmann, Breakthrough) asks her father Ron (Zach Galifianakis, The Hangover) why the terrorists didn’t simply tell us why they were angry. When he responds that perhaps they thought no one would listen, she decides to learn to speak Pashto fluently. In her senior year of high school, Reality, or “Re”’s class (now played by CODA star Emilia Jones) is visited by an Air Force recruiter and learns of her remarkable language skill. Re is lured into military service with the promise that her linguistic skills will save lives on both sides and that she’ll be able to work with refugees when she’s finished. At Ft. Meade, Re listens to Afghani phone calls, identifying possible terrorist threats. When her service is finally done, Re accepts a job with the NSA where her access to classified materials leads her to stumble upon documented proof that despite what President Trump and the rest of the government is saying, Russia hacked into American voting systems prior to the 2017 election. As the knowledge eats away at her, she makes a crucial decision that will change her life forever and bring her name to the attention of the world.

Winner is a disarmingly entertaining and surprisingly funny story of the leaker who served the longest prison sentence ever imposed for the unauthorized release of government information to the media. The screenplay by Fogel and Kerry Howley, infuses a youthful energy and humor into the story, complete with a sarcastic voice over narration. While the dialogue can be a bit on the nose at times, the storytelling is gripping and the characters of Re and her family are complex and engaging. The emotional toll of spending four years sniffing out targets for drone strikes is heavy stuff, and Fogel handles it with poignant sensitivity and righteous anger. 

Jones brings spunk, sass and spirit to the title role, and after she and Fogel took it on the nose with the negative reception to their buzzy disappointment Cat Person at last year’s festival, they’ve come out swinging with a terrific comeback. Galifianakis is outstanding as the eccentric Ron, and Connie Britton (Spin City, Promising Young Woman) steals the second half of the film as Billie, the mother determined to see her daughter get a fair shake from the same government that she served. Kathryn Newton (Freaky, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu) is memorable as Re’s sister Brittany, and the rocky but loving sibling rivalry is made all the stronger by the chemistry between Newton and Jones.

Whether or not it emerges as an awards contender, Winner is an aptly named crowd pleaser that is enjoyable, interesting and effectively humanizes its subject. It’s a solid piece of filmmaking that demands an audience, and let’s hope that the enthusiastic theater  at the Sundance Film Festival premiere (which included the real Reality Winner and her mother) is only the first of many to come. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.