With the imprecisely assembled “XY Chelsea,” multimedia artist-cum-filmmaker Tim Travers Hawkins makes a bold yet mostly fruitless attempt to tell the infamous whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s remarkable story. While it’s hardly Hawkins’ error that his documentary feels unfinished — the self-defined activist’s dramatic saga is still unfolding as we speak — you can’t help but feel his unprecedented access to Manning should have emanated a portrait a lot more enlightening.
This is not to say Hawkins doesn’t give a sincere shot to understanding his complex subject. Born in Oklahoma in 1987 and raised by heavy-drinking parents, the former U.S. Army soldier and intelligence analyst Manning was arrested in 2010 for leaking thousands of sensitive documents, a decision she made after witnessing a series of war crimes in Iraq. During her jail time of seven years, she came out as a trans woman and was released in 2017 upon a Presidential pardon through the final days of the Obama administration — this emotional event marks the start of “XY Chelsea” with her tearful lawyer on the phone.
But Manning recently found herself behind bars again, after refusing to testify to a grand jury against the newly arrested Julian Assange, whose WikiLeaks published the hordes of classified records she had access to. This much life story is surely an immense undertaking for a documentary, but Hawkins only scratches the surface of Manning’s troubled childhood (even with her mom making a brief yet poignant appearance as an interviewee) and multi-pronged dilemmas that sit at the intricate intersection of politics, media, and LGBTQ rights.
As a result, we only get a vague idea of Manning as she grows into her voice and identity in the outside world, while revealing her contradictory leanings. From what we can gather, this undoubtedly sharp but green and fragile young woman has an appetite for justice and openness, and yet, she insists on keeping the public at arm’s length on certain topics. Good luck, for instance, figuring out how Manning really feels about Assange — her ongoing refusal to testify against her former partner-in-crime isn’t out of loyalty, but based on a firm belief in the kind of transparency the secretive practice of grand juries doesn’t fulfill.
Still, beneath all that murkiness, Hawkins helps us catch an occasional glimpse of a scarred and hurting soul who acts in naïve defense of others, while she herself struggles with personal demons and (in some taxing instances) suicidal tendencies. Unsurprisingly, Hawkins’ most affecting emotional brushstrokes define Manning’s cycles of hope and gloom. In a number of scenes, Hawkins’ closeups seize intimate moments with Manning when she indulges in freedoms she had long craved as a trans woman: posing in clothes she feels at home in, admiring her growing hair, or putting on a lipstick with an intense shade of red.
In others, we watch her fall victim to her desperate overzealousness that the filmmaker captures to heartbreaking effect. The most appalling episode occurs on the heels of a blissful stretch with Manning celebrating her newfound online voice (rendered through happily animated emojis) and eagerly tweeting away with no rules of engagement in mind. She learns them the hard way. After joining an alt-right rally as a double agent, she becomes a detested target on Twitter overnight — the social medium doesn’t sympathize with her philosophy of keeping one’s enemies close.
In part, “XY Chelsea” employs a tense style akin to “Citizenfour” and “Risk,” two similarly themed Laura Poitras documentaries on Edward Snowden and Assange respectively (Poitras serves as an executive producer here). We are shown numerous graphics of risky message exchanges, as well as plunges into guarded anxieties brewing between Manning and those who struggle to defend her interests. It all hazily unfolds against an intense score by Johnny Hostile and Jehnny Beth. While a comparable stressful cadence comes naturally to Poitras’ aforesaid films, it feels dutifully forced in Hawkins’ documentary, with a music choice that feels out of step with the ideological ambitions of the film. Rarely approaching the urgency it should exude, “XY Chelsea” feels like a long teaser for a future Chelsea Manning film as her journey continues to evolve. For now, Hawkins’ effort stands as a premature stab at comprehending a selfless character that sets an ambiguous example of bravery.