If you’ve heard of Christine Chubbuck, then chances are you know her story… Or at least, you know how it ends. Back in ’74, she was a news reporter for a fledgling Florida station, covering human-interest stories on her community affairs talk show ‘Suncoast Digest’. She was someone who took her position seriously, believed passionately in the medium, and aspired to further her career by tackling what she believed to be the major issues of concern in her local community. And then suddenly, at the age of 29, she was dead, having shot herself live on air during a morning broadcast.
Theories surrounding Chubbuck’s suicide have varied over the years: her ongoing battles with loneliness and depression both being cited as catalysts for her behaviour. But even to those who have already drawn their own conclusions about her death, Chubbuck herself remains a mystery. And though he seems determined, hers is a riddle that director Antonio Campos seems unable to unravel.
It is alleged that Christine’s actions helped inspire Paddy Chayefsky’s script for Sidney Lumet’s Network, an obvious touchstone for Campos: Chubbuck’s Sarasota studio coloured with a dusty 70s period design reminiscent of Howard Beale’s UBS newsroom. Like Beale, Chubbuck is encouraged by her editor (Tracy Letts) to pursue the nastiest stories, as they invariably garner the highest ratings – “If it bleeds, it leads” she’s told, in a scene of unsettlingly sloppy foreshadowing.Craig Shilowich’s script contains a number of such moments, and suggests – albeit subtly – that each of them helped push Chubbuck a little closer to the edge; a troubling hypothesis that causes the piece to feel uncomfortably exploitative. The enigma of Christine’s character means there are no definitive answers on offer here, and ironically, in what one assumes must be a bid to avoid any ethical conundrums, the prospect of probing the more difficult questions appears to sit uneasily with Shilowich.
What we have instead is a sensationalist, tabloid scoop detailing Christine’s final few days; melodramatic moments of her arguing with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron); watching her dewy-eyed disposition after she’s shown attention from a male colleague (Michael C. Hall), and seeing her dejection after her advances are curbed; listening in to her innermost thoughts as she presents puppet shows to local children with intellectual disabilities – Campos employing a deliberate pace throughout, wringing every last drop of tension from this tragedy as we move closer to the devastating denouement.
Immersing herself in the lead role, it’s Rebecca Hall who succeeds in forging some semblance of an understanding between Chubbuck and the audience. She inhabits Christine’s character – strong, but easily susceptible – and carries our compassion even when she’s compulsively unpleasant. It’s a fantastic performance, in a deeply flawed film.