‘Winner’ Review: Emilia Jones Can’t Save This Perfunctory Portrait of a Whistleblower

Right out of the gate in “Winner,” the newest film to grapple with the story of the U.S. Air Force veteran turned NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, things get off to a mighty rocky start. We hear narration from the latest performer to play Winner, a committed Emilia Jones, drolly explaining how nobody knows who she is other than they like to make fun of her unique name.

While this becomes a more valuable point later on about the dangers of media cycles and whether we’re paying attention to the real issues that matter, it also sets a troubling tone for the rest of the film. Though the grim absurdity of Winner’s story is fair game to tap into, with comedy serving as a potential tool to skewer injustices and speak to a more general audience, it instead marks the beginning of a misguided approach the film never shakes.

This opening monologue doesn’t ring true considering there already was a recent film that brought us into a part of this story in 2023’s “Reality” starring Sydney Sweeney. Though each film is interested in vastly different things, both formally and thematically, to pretend that there isn’t at least some general knowledge of Winner’s story presents the first of many missed opportunities.

While it makes for a potentially pointed joke with which to open, the more terrifying truth is that someone who has become largely known in the public eye can still be railroaded. That the film does eventually arrive at the fact that she was made an example of for leaking classified documents only makes it all the more perplexing that it starts on such a wrong note. While its heart is in the right place, it rarely executes what it’s going for.

Premiering at Sundance on Saturday, “Winner” is directed by Susanna Fogel who was previously at the festival with her short story adaptation “Cat Person,” which also starred Jones. However, while the films feel similar with frequent interjections that lessen their respective impacts, this time around Fogel is working from a script by Kerry Howley, making her feature writing debut. Covering almost all of Winner’s life to date, from when she was a young kid through to her eventual incarceration, it is the type of film that has the disposition and look of a generic studio comedy.

This wouldn’t be the end of the world if it was still able to reveal some distinct insights into its central character or the system that punished them. There are moments where we start to get there, with the components surrounding how young people are casually lied to by military recruiters. It’s a moment that proves to be disquieting in how common such blatant dishonesty is at all the levels that Reality peeks into, but the film seems nervous to dive deeper into them.

Instead, we get more background into Winner’s perspective on her role in the military machine’s nebulous war on terror. The film presents her coping with persistent guilt over the fact that her translations are integral to finding targets to be killed by drones, by either giving as much of herself as she can to community service or by exercising until she passes out. This provides a hint of a darker movie that gets smothered under the film’s attempts at being palatable in the vein of films like “The Big Short” or “Dumb Money,” in addition to its family dramedy elements that are dragged down by a miscast Zach Galifianakis.

There are moments where some lines and emotional beats break through, though they come too infrequently to be meaningful. Even as Jones is convincing as the character, playing her over a far longer period than Sweeney did and with an emphasis on her growing moral uncertainty, the general approach lets her down. For a film about a critically important issue of how someone was thrown under the bus for trying to bring the truth to light, the way it ties itself up rather neatly when the reality of the situation itself is still concerning remains strange in all the wrong ways.

While comparing “Winner” to Tina Satter’s aforementioned “Reality” is perhaps slightly unfair, it proves rather useful in how less can sometimes be more. The minimalistic approach of that prior film, which relied on transcripts and a more clinical approach to the material, spoke volumes about the sinister way the government can tear through our lives and lock us away. It created a distinct experience that proved to be unforgettable, whereas “Winner’ is far too conventional to reach this same level, while being just intriguing enough to be disappointing.

Though it tries to hit on some of the same points as “Reality” and broaden its scope, Fogel’s film ultimately sacrifices depth for breadth. That the most standout part in this film, when the FBI comes knocking after finding out she leaked the document to the press, is the entirety of the one that’s already out there presents the final disappointment. Reality Winner’s story deserves to be told and there is some value in this one doing so again. However, just like its central character commits to doing more and more to make up for all her faults, it isn’t enough to truly do so.

“Winner” is a sales title at Sundance. 

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