‘XY Chelsea’ Review: A Whistleblower Out of Focus

Frustratingly fuzzy and intermittently provocative, “XY Chelsea” profiles Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army analyst who leaked cascades of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010.

Picking up as Manning’s 35-year prison sentence is commuted by President Obama in 2017, Tim Travers Hawkins’s good-looking documentary features more glamour shots than psychological insights. Manning’s turbulent, remarkable story — including a troubled Oklahoma childhood with heavy-drinking parents, two suicide attempts and seven years in an all-male prison while transitioning to a woman — is a nonfiction filmmaker’s dream. Hawkins, however, seems content to hover on its surface, a decision that, depending on your viewpoint, feels either cowardly or humane. Certainly, when The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar interviews Manning (who’s currently back in jail for refusing to testify in the WikiLeaks inquiry) and tries to delve deeper, her subject appears visibly rattled.

Refusing to fully interrogate Manning’s crime or her ethical choices, Hawkins simply observes her embrace of freedom in shots that favor impressionistic attention to her evolving physical appearance. (Outfit discussions might outnumber political ones, but they also usefully underscore that, for a trans person, presentation and politics are one and the same.) Later, as Manning suffers the treacheries of social media and embarks on a Senate run, the glimpses of steel in her wounded personality suggest the film’s focus on emotions over actions might be doing her, and her intellect, a disservice.

“I’m not the person that people think I am,” she says near the beginning, but “XY Chelsea” (Manning’s Twitter handle) doesn’t enlighten us much. What’s left is a touching and tragic portrait of a vulnerable work in progress, one that for now might only be visible through a clouded lens.

XY Chelsea

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.

XY Chelsea

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