The True Story Behind the HBO Movie Reality

4 minute read

On June 3, 2017, 25-year-old American intelligence specialist Reality Leigh Winner arrived home to find two FBI agents waiting outside her house in Augusta, Ga. Over the next 104 minutes, Reality would face increasingly pressing questions about her suspected role in the mishandling of classified information related to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Those 104 minutes are nearly the entirety of what plays out on screen in HBO’s new Reality movie, streaming May 29 on Max. Starring Sydney Sweeney as Winner, the film is based on writer-director Tina Satter’s acclaimed 2019 play “Is This a Room” and features dialogue pulled directly from the transcript of the FBI interrogation of Winner.

“I was drawn by how complex she was,” Sweeney told Variety of her decision to portray Winner. “There are so many contradicting layers of who she is, what it means to be a woman. And I feel that we were able to take a moment and truly humanize it, and not put any type of lens on it. It was just a real moment in time. It’s everything from the transcript. Nothing has changed. And I love that.”

Here’s what to know about the true story behind Reality.

What did Reality Winner do?

Sydney Sweeney in 'Reality'
Sydney Sweeney in RealityHBO

A former U.S. Air Force translator, Winner was employed as a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor in May 2017 when she made the decision to print out a single classified document, smuggle it out of the federal facility in Georgia where she worked, and mail it to the Washington, D.C., post office box of the online news outlet The Intercept. The report described Russian military intelligence cyberattacks on local election officials and American voting software ahead of the 2016 election.

During a 2021 interview with 60 Minutes, Winner said that she was motivated to leak the report because she felt the American people were being misled. “I knew it was secret,” she said. “But I also knew that I had pledged service to the American people, and at that point in time, it felt like they were being led astray.”

The Intercept has been widely criticized for its handling of the leak, which exposed Winner as the anonymous source behind the classified information. The publication sent a copy of the document, which contained a crease showing it had been printed out, to the NSA, allowing the FBI to narrow the pool of potential leakers down to six people. Investigators subsequently identified Winner as the source when they discovered she had emailed The Intercept from her work computer.

Winner was arrested two days before The Intercept published the document, along with a story detailing its significance, on June 5, 2017. Within hours of publication, the Justice Department announced that Winner had been charged under the Espionage Act.

What happened to Reality Winner?


After pleading guilty in 2018 as part of a plea deal, Winner was ultimately sentenced to five years and three months in prison, the longest sentence ever imposed for an unauthorized release of government information to the media. She was the first person prosecuted during the Trump administration on charges of leaking classified information. The film ends on Winner’s arrest.

Winner was released to a halfway house program in June 2021 for good behavior. She was then transferred to home confinement before her full release from custody in November 2021 and is currently on probation. Public opinion on her actions remains divided.

“I thought this was the truth but also did not betray our sources and methods, did not cause damage, did not put lives on the line,” Winner told 60 Minutes in 2021. “It only filled in a question mark that was tearing our county in half in May 2017…I meant no harm.”

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