Envious of her mother’s new romance while she pines after anchorman George Ryan (Michael C. Hall) and struggling to accept her TV station’s decision to prioritise lurid stories, local reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) kills herself on live television.
Christine Chubbuck is known for one thing. It’s hardly a spoiler, therefore, to reveal the Florida field reporter shot herself in the head live on Sarasota’s WXLT channel on 15 July 1974. After all, the incident inspired Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s Network, and was recently explored in Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, which saw actress Kate Lyn Sheil explore the 29-year-old’s mental state at the time. Yet it’s still a shock when Christine pulls the revolver from a bag filled with glove puppets and, placing it behind her right ear, delivers the chilling line: “In keeping with the WZRB policy of presenting the most immediate and complete reports of local blood and guts, TV 30 presents what is believed to be a television first. In living colour, exclusive coverage of an attempted suicide.”
Forces us to rethink our attitude to the media in an age of rolling bulletins and fake news.
This slightly amended quotation is one of many tweaks made by director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich in seeking to understand their subject, while eschewing easy empathy. In many ways, Christine is a victim of both the institutionalised chauvinism of the 1970s, and her admirable desire to resist the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ ethos of her station manager (Tracy Letts). But she also appears to be her own worst enemy, rejecting the affection of her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), the tacit support of camerawoman Jean Reed (Maria Dizzia) and the misguided nudge towards self-help from anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall).
Yet, such is the nuanced intensity of Rebecca Hall’s exceptional performance that Christine becomes scrutable if not entirely sympathetic. Circumstances clearly conspire against her, as she tries to put a bout of depression behind her. She gives puppet shows to disabled children, while her own chances of motherhood diminish when she is diagnosed with an ovarian cyst. Similarly, Peg finds a new man just as Christine is facing the prospect of turning 30 while still a virgin. Meanwhile the opportunity to impress channel owner Bob Andersen (John Cullum) coincides with the tonal shift that emphasises her lack of glamour and the dullness of her reporting style.
Most damagingly, however, Christine’s intelligence and ambition are undermined by her sensitivity and insecurity. Hall deftly uses body language to exacerbate the social awkwardness that stems from an inability to judge situations and adapt to suit them. It’s excruciating to watch Christine consistently fall short of the standards she sets herself, as she scribbles item ideas in a notebook, refines her interviewing technique, strains for on-screen chemistry with George and taps into the police radio to score scoops. But the harder she tries, the more she alienates a boss who seems unlikely to appreciate the irony of her response to his sensationalist agenda.
No stranger to lethal flaws after Afterschool and Simon Killer, Campos clearly feels duty-bound not to exploit Chubbuck’s tragedy. Consequently, he reins in the stylistic flourishes and resists the temptation to satirise ’70s fashions and mores. Campos’ film also forces us to rethink our attitude to the media in an age of rolling bulletins, tabloid stings, citizen journalism and fake news that has seen experts become pariahs, and reporters such as Alison Parker become fair game for live assassination on a TV breakfast show.
Impeccably played by Rebecca Hall, this is a thoughtful reflection on life’s casual cruelties and how little attitudes towards women have changed since Watergate.