The story of Christine Chubbuck is as fascinating as it is tragic. A contributing news reporter for WTOG and WXLT-TV in Florida in the 1970’s, Chubbuck was a tormented soul who was the only person ever to commit suicide on live television when she put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Rumored to the inspiration for Peter Finch’s suicide in Sidney Lumet’s Network, Chubbuck’s suicide sent ripples through the industry and the footage of the event has either been lost, destroyed or sealed in a safety deposit box depending on the urban legend you are prone to believe.
Director Antonio Campos (Simon Killer, After School) takes on the task of telling Christine’s story to audiences unfamiliar with the tragedy. Actress Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3) throws herself into the title role. Allowing her to stretch her acting chops beyond smaller roles in The Town and Frost/Nixon, Hall is generally convincing as an adult who has inner demons always working against her better interests in her head.
The story picks up the last year of Christine’s life. Christine is a news reporter who strives for better television. She marvels in human interest stories and fantasizes about interviewing President Nixon. Christine is in constant conflict with those around her. Whether it’s her live-in mother and new boyfriend to whom Christine disapproves, her station manager who believes in the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality, or with her own better judgment, Christine seems to be fighting small battles every day of her life.
Christine is thrown a lifeline by news anchor George Peter Ryan (played by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall). Ryan believes in Christine’s efforts even if her methods might be disapproving. A recovering addict himself, Ryan might be Christine’s best ally in his understanding of her challenges. Christine has an underdeveloped crush on the young anchor and is enamored when he eventually asks her out for a date.
Further conflict comes into play when the owner of the station announces his intention to open a sister station in Baltimore and is looking to leverage some of the talent from Florida. This puts the station staff in mini-competition with each other in hopes of catching the owner’s eye. But when George Ryan and the female sportscaster are picked for the new station, Christine loses her last thread of hope for acceptance which leads her to request a lead in the next broadcast. The broadcast will be her last.
The final moments of Christine Chubbuck’s life stays true to the facts of the evening. After a filmed reel segment jams and cannot be shown, Chubbuck looks into the camera and says “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.” She then took the revolver from her purse and shot herself in the head. She later died in hospital.
Unfortunately, the story is more fascinating than the events that play out in Christine. It’s difficult to show inner demons and although Rebecca Hall’s dark eyes portray a woman in conflict, the progression from a balanced individual to someone who would commit suicide on live television is not pitched in a way that audiences can follow the downward spiral. Although Christine is portrayed as unstable the breaking point is not presented in plausible fashion.
Rebecca Hall alone is reason to watch Christine and she is in every scene carrying the movie to its inevitable conclusion. But an underwhelming script by writer Craig Shilowich does little but have audiences hope for something – anything – to happen to keep us interested in the character development on screen.
Christine is one of two films about Christine Chubbuck that premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival the other being the Kate Plays Christine which has actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to portray the role of Christine. Let’s hope that film gives us more insight into what is still an unbelievable story yet to be properly told.