Anyone who watches U.S. TV crime shows and followed the arrest of (now former) International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn must have felt a shock of recognition.
There were photos of him leaving the New York Police Department's Special Victims Unit in handcuffs. Yes, the SVU, as it's called on Law & Order: SVU. It does exist, and pretty much in the location where it is set on the show. The cops and lawyers surrounding Strauss-Kahn even looked like those seen on TV. The interrogation room, which was shown in The New York Times, looked eerily familiar, but not as well-lit as the TV version.
The use of true stories of crime and scandal as fodder for police procedurals has become a cliché. The real story is changed only slightly, but everybody knows the origin. On TV, of course, a criminal case is wrapped up quickly by super-smart detectives and prosecutors. Real crimes are much harder to solve, and the true details are drab or sordid.
It is equally a cliché to suggest that truth is stranger than fiction, but the cliché contains a profound truth: Every now and then, along comes a story - one even bigger than the arrest of Strauss-Kahn - that truly beggars the imagination and unfolds as an event that has a major impact in the world.
Such a story is that of Bradley Manning. This week, it is one year since the young U.S. Army private was arrested for allegedly handing over half a million classified documents to WikiLeaks.
Frontline: WikiSecrets (PBS, 9 p.m.) is an outstanding investigation of Manning and his involvement with WikiLeaks. Using new and rare access to people close to Manning, including his father, and access to Manning's Facebook account, it offers extraordinary insight into the matter. It is also seriously dramatic, from its rich portrait of Manning's past to a very tense, highly charged interview with WikiLeaks's Julian Assange about the use - or misuse - of the information obtained.
WikiLeaks caused an international sensation with its release of footage taken from a U.S. Army helicopter gunship in Iraq, footage that documented the killing of civilians on a street in Baghdad with gleeful commentary from the personnel on board. WikiLeaks promised more damning revelations from a vast cache of secret documents. Now, many believe the main source of that information was Manning, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst who had been in Iraq for just a few months.
Frontline offers a compelling picture of Manning's youth and army career - a young gay man who seemed to be endlessly at war with authority. What the Facebook material reveals is a person who hated the baiting and harassment he received for being gay. Because of the U.S. Army's "Don't ask, don't tell" rules, he could do little except internalize his anger. He hated the base in New York State where he trained, but enjoyed his computer work, which he carried out mostly alone.
He signalled his support for gay marriage and his anger against the "Don't ask, don't tell" rules, too. His relationships with other men were documented melodramatically. There were mood shifts from joy to anger to depression. While family and friends worried about his online activity, the U.S. Army gave Manning astonishing access to vast amounts of secret information. He brought recordable CDs to work. There seemed to be no system of flagging an unusual amount of material being downloaded. No attention was paid to the obvious fact that the young man was angry and under severe personal stress.
We learn a great deal about Manning's connection to a group of computer hackers in the United States, and even see footage of the short, smiling young man at a social event for those hackers. From there the story turns. It delves into the murky world of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange's apparent ruthless use of Manning. People who have broken away from WikiLeaks contradict Assange's statements. In the climactic interview with Assange, by reporter Martin Smith, you feel there's the whiff of sulphur in the air. The point is made that while Assange sits in legal limbo in Britain, he's in a country mansion, while Manning is in a tiny cell in a U.S. Army brig.
Senior editors from The Guardian and The New York Times talk in the program about publishing the documents released by WikiLeaks and the increasing difficulties of dealing directly with Assange. A U.S. government official explains why the release of the material is a serious crime.
And then, at the end, it is asserted that as part of the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables, a dozen cables relating to corruption in Tunisia "helped fuel a revolution and arguably had a domino effect."
Essentially, the changed Arab world is traced back to the actions of a quarrelsome, unhappy 22-year-old who had access to huge amounts of secret documents.
You couldn't make it up, and the truth as it is chronicled here is beyond bewildering.
A motherlode of "if" questions ensue for the viewer. But the key one is this: "If" the U.S. Army were better equipped to absorb into its a ranks a young gay man, would the events never have happened? There's a shock of recognition there, too.