“I’m not a hero,” says Chelsea Manning toward the end of Tim Travers Hawkins’s “XY Chelsea,” a riveting but often frustrating documentary that focuses mainly on Manning’s 2017 release from jail, where she spent seven years for sharing classified military documents. During her time in prison, Manning came out as a trans woman, and on her release, she takes delight in putting on ultra-red lipstick and growing her hair long, which was not allowed in the all-male facility where she was detained.
Manning is currently back in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leader who released Manning’s documents and videos online after The New York Times and the Washington Post expressed no interest in this information in 2010. It is not made entirely clear in “XY Chelsea” just what Manning feels about Assange, but she is likely martyring herself again purely on principle over a man to whom she has no loyalty. Assange might be unsavory, but from Manning’s perspective, the U.S. government is worse.
In a public interview with a New Yorker reporter that is shown here, Manning is asked tough, but fair questions about what she did and why she chose WikiLeaks, and she responds very defensively and inconclusively. There is so much of this story that needs further explanation, information, and context, that judgment regarding much of what we are being presented has to be suspended for now.
There is always a sense here of Manning’s emotional and physical fragility, and this is the aspect of “XY Chelsea” that is particularly difficult to parse. We are shown various people who have been drawn into trying to help and protect Manning both legally and emotionally, and once she is freed from prison they coalesce into a team that includes publicists. Manning poses for photos that present her visually as a kind of Edie Sedgwick of whistleblowing, and the effect is uneasy because it is clear that Manning does not quite know how to position herself for the public. The tragic aspect of this is that Manning is often so bright and appealing on camera that she might have made an impact in so many other ways if the pressures of her early life hadn’t led her into joining the military.
Manning was born in Oklahoma in 1987, and both of her parents were alcoholics. From what we hear, Manning led a very insecure life as a child and adolescent, and she was pressured to conform, which is what led her to sign up for the military in 2007. At five-foot-two, the rebellious Manning did not fit into this new environment in any sense, yet the army was so in need of recruits that she was eventually entrusted with classified information.
Manning says here that, “the Iraq War had left the consciousness” of America by 2010, and she was horrified by how “life was cheap” in Iraq. The videos that Manning released via WikiLeaks exposed civilian deaths that were covered up as the deaths of “enemy combatants,” and Manning stresses several times in “XY Chelsea” that she knew exactly what was in all the documents and that no harm could have come to military sources by releasing this information — this is a point that is surely up for some debate. There are no easy answers here and many vexing questions.
Hawkins does not interview Manning’s father, who seems to be at the root of so many of Manning’s problems, but he does talk to her mother Susan, who suffered a stroke a few years ago. Susan looks very much like Chelsea, and in the fragments of speech we hear from her she expresses love for her daughter and remembers how Chelsea used to command three computer stations at home.
Manning is articulate and clearly intelligent, and she was self-aware enough to call herself “naïve” in a computer message we see on screen in the lead-up to her releasing the classified documents. That naïveté gets her into trouble when she attempts to engage with people on Twitter and eventually runs for office. Manning makes the mistake of attending an alt-right function in order to infiltrate the enemy, but this military tactic earns her scorn from her Twitter followers, and this leads to a message from her on Twitter that reads “I’m sorry” underneath a photo of a woman’s feet on the ledge of a building. (Manning attempted suicide twice while in prison.)
The story of Chelsea Manning is still very much in process, and we are not going to understand some of its ramifications for years to come. This is a very difficult personal narrative to try to digest and make sense of, but at least “XY Chelsea” makes for a start on this, even if it cannot approach anything definitive on her singular story.