XY Chelsea




A truly memorable film could be made about Chelsea Manning. Unfortunately, this is not it.

XY Chelsea


Although Chelsea Manning is only 31-years-old, her life story provides rich material for any documentarist - it could even be seen as too rich. Given a jail sentence of thirty five years in 2010 when she was still known as Bradley Manning, her actions in leaking military secrets to WikiLeaks could fuel a full feature in themselves - and all the more so because what she did totally divided public opinion. There were those who acclaimed her for revealing evidence of how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had led to abuses of human rights which had then been covered up but, equally, there were those who viewed her as a traitor to her country for disclosing secret information which it was claimed could put lives in danger. In addition to all that, it was during this period that Manning announced that she was transitioning from male to female: given the fact that she was in the public eye so prominently, that must have made the difficulties inherent in adjusting to such a change even harder to handle. XY Chelsea seeks to cover all of this while also considering her childhood, family background and that part of her life spent in the military as an intelligence analyst.


Since there is so much ground to cover, it might well be that the project would have worked better if created for television as a series of programmes. That makes it all the odder that this film by Tim Travers Hawkins frequently opts for a kind of visual semi-dramatisation which uses up much screen time emphasising images and music in an unhelpful bid to cut down on talking heads. Equally questionable is the decision to jump back and forth in time so much. The film starts as late as January 2017 when President Obama, while not pardoning Manning, commuted her sentence and gave her freedom. Ensuing events are of course covered later on, but in the midst of that we are suddenly liable to find that we have shot back to matters occurring before her release.


The fact that Chelsea is seen not just in public footage but commenting to the filmmaker could quite possibly have encouraged an approach to the material which is often superficial. The film avoids a number of incidents that could be relevant to how stable she was at various times although it does reference the incident in 2018 when Manning was criticised for attending a right-wing event. But, when doing so, it never interrogates the fact that, despite having claimed that she was there to infiltrate and learn about these people, she is also heard to say that what she did was indefensible. Early on, we learn of bad parenting by both her father and mother who would separate, but only much later in the film and in a passing line is it indicated that Bradley Manning had come out as gay at the age of thirteen. That led to bullying and must be important to her story. After her release, she would have a publicity team and in 2018 would participate as a candidate for the Senate and these matters are touched on but would benefit from greater consideration since they are such a part of who she is now. I mention these points as examples to illustrate why XY Chelsea comes across as a disappointing take on an extraordinary person. Her history should have yielded a fascinating film and the material is intriguing enough for what we have not to be boring, but how much better it could have been in other hands.




Featuring  Chelsea Manning, Nancy Hollander, Vince Ward, Chase Strangio, Lisa Rein, Christina DiPasquale, Susan Manning Janus Kopfstein, Kelly Wright.


Dir Tim Travers Hawkins, Pro Julia Nottingham, Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochna and Isabel Davis, Screenplay Mark Monroe, Tim Travers Hawkins, Enat Sidi and Andrea Scott, Ph Shannon Palmer and others, Ed Enat Sidi and Andrea Scott, Art Dir Katie Yarhouse, Music Johnny Hostile and Jehnny Beth.


British Film Institute/Field of Vision/Pulse Films/Faliro House/19340 Productions/Showtime Documentary Films-Dogwoof.
92 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 24 May 2019. Cert. 15.