When Chelsea Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military documents it changed the perception of the Iraq War irreversibly. Manning revealed, in no uncertain terms, acts of indefensible violence which led to her arrest. Some patriots wanted her dead, and the government put her through hell, but her actions led to truths being shed. XY Chelsea is an intimate look at life after prison for one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers, as well as a sorrowful picture about trauma and inescapable consequences.
We are in an era of questioning the status quo, so it feels right that the beginning of XY Chelsea asks the question “What would you do?”. This might send a person into an existential crisis, but it’s a worthwhile question. Throughout all the talks surrounding these leaks, there’s not much contemplation or empathy. War sentiment is not at a high point, as people are looking back and beginning to acknowledge the civilian deaths — there are too many to accurately count — apparently (there are thousands of unreported casualties). The footage that confirms the gross actions of the U.S military is as brutal as it is necessary, and Tim Travers Hawkins’ character study dives into the psychological effects of not only witnessing it but choosing to share it with the world.
XY Chelsea touches upon the court cases and leaks, but mostly it focuses in on the woman at the center of it and how she is (or isn’t) coping. Chelsea is a ghost of a person, soft-spoken, volatile, and suffering from her mental illnesses. As she recounts the dark, tiny cells she was kept in for extended periods of time it’s impossible not to return to that question at the start – especially with the knowledge that Chelsea was well aware of what would happen after leaking the information to the public. How many people would be brave enough to do such a thing? But Tim Travers Hawkins makes a point not to martyrize Chelsea, which he said “was tempting to do with figures such as her” in a Q&A afterward. This is a film of actions and consequences, it showcases an act of integrity, but also reminds us it is not without cost.
Chelsea’s gender transition is part of this story, but it never overshadows. In one of the film’s many personal moments Chelsea remarks upon her entry into the military, and why she signed up. She thought of it as going “clean”; running away from her identity as a trans woman. When we hear voices speaking about her publicly coming out, they all sound similar — “I don’t care if it’s he or she, he’s a traitor” — but the spitefulness in their voice says they do care. And in “Trump’s America”, the link between trans people and the military has never been more sensitive or exploited. It speaks to the large theme at hand, humanism versus bureaucracy; and as Chelsea is dragged through the court system again in current time, it’s depressingly clear who’s winning.