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Review: Chelsea Manning proves elusive in documentary profile ‘XY Chelsea’

Chelsea Manning in a scene from “XY Chelsea.” Credit: Showtime
Chelsea Manning in a scene from “XY Chelsea.”
(Showtime)

“I ’m not the person people think I am,” says Chelsea Manning, the transgender whistle-blower and activist star of the provocative documentary “XY Chelsea,” directed by Tim Travers Hawkins, who co-wrote with Mark Monroe, Enat Sidi and Andrea Scott.

Manning’s above claim may be true but the film, which traces the bumpy road that followed Barack Obama’s 2017 commutation of the 35-year prison sentence Manning received (she served seven years) for leaking classified Iraq war-related material in 2010 to WikiLeaks, doesn’t provide a particularly conclusive or engaging picture of the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst.

This frequently fascinating, frustrating study in naiveté, personal turmoil and self-discovery leaves the viewer stranded in process: The film ends with Manning’s arrest this March for refusing to testify in a grand jury investigation of WikiLeaks.

Hawkins, often in vérité style, captures Manning as she tries, with the help of friends and handlers, to re-enter society after her 2017 prison release. These attempts include media interviews, a failed Senate run and an ill-conceived “infiltration” of an alt-right rally. Manning’s search for calm, focus and purpose proves as elusive as her own skittish, uncertain persona.

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Details of her fraught youth plus a recent interview with her mother, a stroke survivor, offer glimpses into Manning’s psyche and makeup. But deeper emotional clarity, especially about her transgender journey, could have made this a more wholly satisfying portrait.

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‘XY Chelsea’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

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Playing: Starts May 10, Laemmle Glendale; available June 7 on Showtime

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