Louis Theroux Interviews Chelsea Manning on BBC Two review: the best episode of the series

Forget WikiLeaks: this charged interview is at its best when digging into Manning's upbringing
Daniel Keane1 minute ago

In February 2010, Chelsea Manning sent WikiLeaks a short video. The clip, entitled “Collateral Murder”, showed two American Apache helicopters opening fire on a group of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists. When the website published the footage two months later, it became a defining moment in America’s War on Terror: revealing the horror inflicted on innocent people in the name of western democracy. Manning, now 35, went on to leak an enormous trove of military reports, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks while she was an intelligence analyst in Iraq. She was convicted of espionage and other offences in 2013 and received a 35-year jail sentence, the longest ever imposed for a leak. Manning, who was born a man, announced that she identified as a woman the day after her conviction and began to transition. She remained behind bars until May 2017, when former president Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

The whistleblower is the focus of the fifth instalment of BBC Two’s Louis Theroux Interviews…, which has seen the nation’s favourite bespectacled maverick probe the darkest secrets of Anthony Joshua, Pete Doherty, Joan Collins and RAYE. This is by far the strongest interview of the series so far: a portrait of an inspiring, complex person struggling with the impact of a life-changing decision.

More than six years after her release, Manning is living in Brooklyn and working as an activist raising awareness of the dangers of AI and big tech. The interview takes place at the Three Dollar Bill, a gay bar and space where she regularly DJs. Theroux’s awkwardness appears to have a calming influence on Manning, who speaks of wanting to expose the “callous” behaviour of the American military in Iraq. It is a world of moral ambiguity, where the laws of war are broken with impunity and civilian death is justifiable. Yet she is also struck by the kindness shown by some soldiers. “You can see the best and worst of humanity in a single 30-minute window,” she says. Theroux is less interested in the political implications of the leak, which have been discussed to death. Even the brief mention of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, sends chills through the room. The activist recently lost an appeal in the British High Court to avoid extradition to the US, where he faces 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse. Though the pair have never met, Assange's legal troubles have put Manning in an uncomfortable position and she is forced to bat away questions from Theroux about the extent of their cooperation. At one point, her manager intervenes and requests that he “stop going down the Assange route”. This is understandable given the obvious legal complications, but I don’t think that aides and communications professionals realise how awful it looks on screen. Have none of them heard of the Streisand effect?

Theroux quickly realises that this line of questioning is futile and shifts the focus to Manning’s childhood, friendships and struggles with mental health. This is where the interview excels. Manning grew up in a small town in Oklahoma with an alcoholic mother and abusive father, whose love and acceptance she craved. Her sense of inadequacy as a (then) son and man was a key factor in her choice to join the military: a need to “man up” in the eyes of her father. While in prison, she struggled to receive appropriate medical care after undergoing gender affirming surgery, despite promises from the Department of Justice. She felt as if the Obama Administration, a progressive government, was “fighting” her. “It just made me feel like giving up,” she says. Manning speaks bravely about her lowest moments, including her struggle with mental health issues and the multiple attempts she made to take her own life. Theroux handles these issues with characteristic sensitivity and empathy, allowing her the space to tell her story at her own pace. 

While much of the interview takes place in the Three Dollar Bill, its most captivating moments unfold as they walk around Manhattan. Manning is at ease in the city: it is large enough to feel anonymous in but has a caring LGBTQ+ community that looks after her. Theroux works his magic in these unusual spaces, catching her off-guard with questions as they munch on pizza in Union Square or shop for clothes. He is perhaps the only interviewer in the business with the peculiar talent of being able to ask about your traumatic childhood while you wait for a latte.

Before Manning disappears into the subway at the end of the interview, she embraces Theroux: a sign that he has won her trust. While this interview will disappoint news editors hungry for a line on Assange, it succeeds in ways that other profiles of Manning have not: painting a picture of a complex person who, Theroux says, has “frailties that are inseparable from her gifts”. Louis Theroux Interviews... Chelsea Manning will air on BBC Two at 9pm