In the recent HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, the scientist Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) stands up in a Soviet courtroom in the show’s final moments and tells the truth about the reactor flaw that led to its explosion and the resulting nuclear disaster. Against the “secrets and lies” of Soviet communism, the miniseries pits a western style whistleblower in Legasov, who sacrifices what remains of his life (he has been poisoned by radiation) to tell the truth on behalf of the public good.
While the scene is appealing, it is also false. Legasov recanted his statements that the Chernobyl disaster happened only due to operator error, and his role in Chernobyl drove him to suicide, but he never stood up in a courtroom and spoke truth to power. Yet the scene feels real because it captures how we imagine truth-telling in politics to work: men (and it is almost always men) sacrifice their lives to expose lies, and make the state serve the public good.
In contrast to the surging heroism of Legasov in Chernobyl, the depiction of the real-life whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, in the recent Showtime documentary, XY Chelsea, is less appealing and cohesive. But it is also—and for that reason—more important.
XY Chelsea veers between two narratives about Manning’s acts without deciding between them.
XY Chelsea follows Manning post-commutation in her struggle to find a role and place in a world outside of prison, and it ends with her failed Senate run and recent incarceration for her grand jury resistance. The film is composed primarily of original interviews with Manning and footage of her doing other interviews (for example, with The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar). The film also flashes multiple excerpts from the published chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo that preceded (and led to) her arrest and incarceration for leaking massive amounts of classified information to Wikileaks in 2010. We hear from Manning’s lawyers and a close friend (Lisa Rein)—and once from her mother, in one of the most moving and remarkable moments of the film. The documentary is largely biographical, but it also asks, through a close focus on Manning’s own words and experience, questions about why she decided to leak classified information.
It is difficult not to compare XY Chelsea to Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, which was also a close-up story of a whistleblower (Edward Snowden). Yet while Poitras (the producer of XY Chelsea) allowed Snowden and his narrative to inhabit the foreground of that film, she also crafted a background that contextualized his actions within the American security state and positioned him as part of a broader cohort of citizens and whistleblowers concerned about illegal governmental surveillance (including Poitras herself). Poitras’s film, in other words, offered the viewer a narrative about why Snowden’s actions were important: furthering a collective movement concerned with how state surveillance curtails freedom and enables disastrous war-making.
XY Chelsea does not offer this kind of story. Instead, the film veers between two narratives about Manning’s acts without deciding between them.
In the first, her actions appear to be a symptom of youthful naiveté: an expression of passion or idealism, untempered by reason or judgment. This narrative pops up throughout the film, but we see it most clearly in a speech Manning gave at the sentencing portion of her trial in 2013, replayed in the film, where she says: “I look back at my decisions and wonder, how on earth did I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better?” This apparently more realistic, chastened sense of self comes together with the maturity evident in knowing and expressing more fully who she is: a trans woman. As Manning says, in the first words we hear her utter in the film (in voiceover), “I like coming of age stories. . . . Maybe it’s the trans part of me, that feels like life is a coming of age story.” Here, her disclosures of classified information are connected to how she comes to grow into who she is, and part of her coming out.
Yet diametrically opposed to this runs the film’s second narrative: that Manning’s actions were done purely on behalf of the public good and had nothing to do with her personal identity or feelings. Early on, XY Chelsea displays an oft-quoted part of the chat logs where Manning says: “if you had free reign over classified info” that shows things that affect people in every part of the world, “what would you do?” The film’s continued use of footage from “Collateral Murder”—footage Manning leaked of an American helicopter killing two Reuters employees and shooting other unarmed individuals, including children—and references to other parts of the chat logs emphasize her public-minded motivations. The point is driven home in an excerpt from Larissa MacFarquhar’s on-stage interview with Manning. She asks Manning how her personal “turmoil” about transitioning affected her decision to leak documents. Manning replies, with some feeling, that “they’re not connected, I don’t think they’re connected. I see the endless stream of violence and death and destruction as being the primary motivator.”
The specter that this second narrative is trying to stave off is that Manning leaked documents “because” she was trans. Yet why exactly are Manning and the filmmaker worried about viewers adopting this framework? My guess is that Manning worries that were she to connect her “turmoil” with her leaking of documents, she will be dismissed as an angry, confused charlatan rather than a true whistleblower. She has good reason to worry: early press coverage of Manning after her arrest framed her in this way, namely as being motivated by revenge or “delusions of grandeur.” The implication is that if private motives are mixed up with public actions, those actions lose credibility.
Yet Manning’s private feelings were mixed up with her public actions—as the film itself demonstrates—and XY Chelsea’s oscillation between these two narratives leaves the viewer with a feeling of uncertainty and incoherence, rather than revelation. How should we see the connection between Chelsea Manning’s personal feelings and growth and her public actions?
XY Chelsea has no answer for this question, but there is virtue in posing it. We see at least that the reality of truth-telling is more complicated and intimate than the narrative of public-mindedness that truth-tellers are called to inhabit would suggest. Still, the film’s failure to decisively draw connections between these personal and public narratives leaves intact a whistleblower framework that it should have questioned. The public/private distinction that underlies this framework lends credibility to certain speakers and truths over others. Cisgender white men have long been seen as more properly “public” than other speakers, and our notions of what is properly public and private are not natural, but rather—as feminist and queer theorists have long argued—politically produced. Viewed within this framework, Chelsea Manning is never going to look like a credible truth-teller. Simply appearing in public as trans makes her appear to be focused on “private,” and not just “public,” goods.
What might Manning’s story look like when told in the context of trans resistance to the prison industrial complex?
XY Chelsea should have challenged this framework by drawing on moments in Manning’s own narrative that unsettle its terms. At the very end of the film, Manning says, “Being trans, being queer as a kid, being unwanted and being unloved and being not cared about, I’ve always felt a close connection with the people who are hurting the most.” Here, Manning briefly ties together what the film does not, showing that her experiences of the punishing violence and marginalizing force of laws, social norms, and hierarchies connects what we often take to be separate: intimate and public life. Intimate feelings are politically important because they reveal connections, build political solidarity, and spur political action.
There is another story to be told about Manning’s leaking: as an act sparked both by Manning’s sense of the injustice of secrecy as a policy about sexuality in the Army (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) and as a regime of classification that keeps the public in the dark and thus powerless.
What story of Manning’s acts might a filmmaker be able to tell, if they pursued the wealth of material in Manning’s own interviews and life that contravene the dominant whistleblower script? For example, what might Manning’s story look like when told in the context of trans resistance to the prison industrial complex? One could imagine a filmmaker putting Manning’s truth-telling together with the truth-telling of people like CeCe McDonald and Dean Spade. (Manning contributed, along with McDonald and Spade, to the important edited volume, Captive Genders, and wrote extensively about her prison experience in the Guardian.) Or, what might Manning’s story look like in the context of broader anti-war resistance—putting her whistleblowing together with other veterans speaking out against the war, or in the context of a history of war resistance in this country? Or, what might her story look like when told in the context of the different groups, like the Chelsea Manning Support Network, that sprung up around and in solidarity with her?
Rather than zeroing in on Manning as a lone actor, we would do better to seek out these outsider cohorts that enable and illuminate her activism, and that might reveal a different way to see the significance of her story. There is a moment in XY Chelsea when another person tells Manning’s story. They say, “Changing the world is hard.” They both laugh, and the friend says, “Chelsea knows.” And what have we learned?