'XY Chelsea': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

A life in dissent.

Activist and whistleblower Chelsea Manning tells her side of a very fraught, fragmented story in Tim Travers Hawkins' edifying documentary.

"I love coming-of-age stories," says Chelsea Manning near the start of the documentary XY Chelsea, a Tribeca Film Festival world premiere soon to debut on Showtime. There are notes of wistfulness and defensiveness in how this former soldier/whistleblower — who uploaded caches of classified documents and video to Julian Assange's WikiLeaks website in 2010, and came out as a trans woman after she was arrested for her actions — utters those words, since she herself is stuck in something of a soul-sucking rut.

Director Tim Travers Hawkins adopts many of the same dissociative techniques utilized by executive producer Laura Poitras in her Edward Snowden profile Citizenfour (2014). The widescreen imagery is either smeary (moral complexity in literal motion) or oppressively sterile. The soundtrack is mostly comprised of omnipresent hums and drones, very Nine Inch Nails in ambient mode. But unlike Citizenfour, the film starts at the end of Manning's story — or, really, what should be a new beginning for her — with the commutation, in the waning days of the Obama administration, of her 35-year prison sentence after seven years served.

Hawkins is there to capture the moment when Manning's lawyer, Nancy Hollander, learns that her client is going to be released. It's very moving, and this is before we've even properly gotten to know Manning as an onscreen presence. The filmmaker seems to have been granted unprecedented access to both Manning and to the people around her, and he uses this natural, unforced intimacy to present a fragmented portrait of a person attempting to readapt to a society in which they never particularly learned how to fit.

Initially, we spend time with Manning at the bucolic safe house where she lies low immediately after her release. There's a sense that she's taking a much-needed breather, but to what ends, exactly? Her life previously — alcoholic, divorced parents; frequent bullying in school — was fraught and identity-garbling. Joining the military seemed like a stabilizing option, yet would prove to be anything but. And now, as she notes, she's lost seven years, stepping into an agitating new reality as if out of a time machine. Since she's never had much in the way of a concrete sense of self, this makes the business of living extremely difficult.

Every time Manning seems to find a niche — becoming a forthright Twitterer; speaking out at protests and rallies; running in the primary for a U.S. Senate seat — something upends her progress. Hawkins captures her during a number of especially taxing moments, such as the aftermath of the alt-right rally that she attended as a "double agent," yet which was taken in leftist circles as a full-on betrayal. Especially revealing is a scene in which Manning doesn't even appear: a visit to her stroke-afflicted mother, Susan, in the U.K., the older woman's every gentle word and gesture somehow still communicating the chaotic, complicated upbringing she gave to her now-infamous offspring.

XY Chelsea follows a fairly rigorous dramatic throughline. Time and again, Manning retreats from the public spotlight, then moves back into it — a vicious cycle. And now, as noted in the final scenes, there's a further wrinkle. Manning is back in prison on a contempt charge for refusing to testify before a grand jury about her involvement with Assange and WikiLeaks. Will her discontent ever end?

Not likely. At one point, Manning defines her morality simply as wanting to help people who are hurting. What Hawkins' film reveals, quite tragically and pessimistically, is a caring soul who has sacrificed their individuality to a perpetually muddled greater good.

Director-cinematographer: Tim Travers Hawkins
Producers: Julia Nottingham, Lucas Ochoa, Thomas Benski, Isabel Davis
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Editors: Enat Sidi, Andrea Scott
Executive producers: Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook, Vinnie Malhotra, Mary Burke, Michael Bloom, Lisa Leingang, Sharon Chang, Christos Konstantakopoulos, Blaine Vess, Marisa Clifford, Ryan Harrington
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Movies Plus)
U.S. sales: Ben Braun (Submarine Entertainment)
International sales: Ana Vincente (Dogwoof)

92 minutes