On July 15, 1974, as President Nixon was being driven from office, a 29-year-old TV journalist in Sarasota, Florida, interrupted her morning talk show for a dramatic announcement. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, we bring you another first,” Christine Chubbuck told her viewers. “Attempted suicide.” She then pulled out a .38 revolver and shot herself in the back of the head. Chubbuck died 15 hours later, the first person ever to commit suicide on live TV and, according to popular myth, the inspiration for Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). A new drama, Christine, chronicles the last few weeks of Chubbuck’s life, with a heartrending performance from Rebecca Hall in the title role. Interviewed for the movie’s press notes, Hall is quick to connect Chubbuck to her era: “There’s this woman who’s in a state of nervous breakdown and there’s also a nation in a state of nervous breakdown. And it felt to me in many ways about America in the mid-70s as much as that one woman.”
That being the case, you might assume Christine to have special significance now, as a Nixonian figure ascends to the presidency, catapulted to office by a sensationalist cable news culture. Yet the movie—written by Craig Shilowich, who has stuck pretty closely to the journalistic record—doesn’t hold much topical relevance. Like the TV series Mad Men, it can be revealing in its archaic framing of issues that still vex us (in this case, gender equality and the commercialization of news). But the heart of the movie is Hall’s incisive psychological portrait of the anguished young woman, who suffered from bipolar disorder and, to a lesser degree, professional stress and an arid personal life. Chubbuck may have turned her own death into a public spectacle, but Christine works best as a private story of someone terribly alone, isolated by sexual insecurity and using her broadcast personality as a social shield. No matter how much we might want to regard her as a symbol of her times, or ours, she is complex and irreducible.
Chubbuck had landed at WXLT in Sarasota after professional stints in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Saint Petersburg, and as host of the daily community-affairs show Suncoast Digest, she’d distinguished herself with tough, serious-minded interviews. This makes Chris the natural antagonist of her boss, Mike (Tracy Letts), news director for their low-rated and increasingly unprincipled station. “It’s a simple concept, guys—if it bleeds, it leads,” Mike tells his staff, dropping a slogan that was still fresh in 1974. “There’s a reason this idea is catching fire in the culture right now.” Chris leads the charge against him, arguing that sensationalism will make their station a joke, but she’s also an ambitious woman—when she learns that the station’s owner (John Cullum) is looking to poach some talent for his bigger station in Baltimore, she buys a police radio and goes chasing after violent stories, landing a dramatic interview with a fire survivor. She’s an imperfect hero, but because of her sarcastic final words, uttered when she was out of her mind, one feels almost obliged to regard her demise as some sort of media critique.
Christine is more credible in treating Chubbuck’s frustrations as a working woman. “You know what your problem is, Chubbuck?” Mike asks Chris. “You’re a feminist. You think that the way to get ahead is by talking louder than the other guy. That’s the whole movement in a nut shell.” Remember, this is the Ron Burgundy era, when women in TV journalism were expected to show some leg, yet Hall captures the flat voice and mannish, intense demeanor that must have held Chubbuck back professionally. Among the other woman at the station, she’s admired by a younger coworker, Jean (Maria Dizzia), but the breaks all go to the prettier, more vivacious, and decidedly less threatening Andrea (Kim Shaw). This part of the story hits harder than any critique of journalistic corruption, primarily because Chris’s relationships with men expose more of her private self and the demons that destroyed her.
Despite Hall’s cultural reading of the story, her real accomplishment is taking us deep inside a guarded personality: her giant eyes are like a pair of TV screens broadcasting Chris’s need, anxiety, and hopelessness. Chubbuck lived with her mother and older brother, and according to an August 1974 feature in the Washington Post, she had no close friends. “She was a strange combination of someone who at once wanted, needed desperately, the support and friendship of others and in another way rejected others out of a sense of defensive pride,” wrote reporter Sally Quinn. In the newsroom Chris can be a fierce combatant, slicing and dicing Mike, but a different person emerges during her volunteer shifts at a hospital for mentally disabled children, where she performs a series of gentle and disarmingly wise puppet shows. “I thought people were supposed to like me for who I am,” complains one of her characters, just after Chris has clashed with Mike. “They are,” replies her other character. “But you have to show them who you are. . . . You put on nice clothes and you wake up every day and you tell people who you are.”
More than anything else, sex isolates Chris from the rest of the world. According to the Post story, Chubbuck complained to anyone who would listen that she was still a virgin, yet she scared off men. Her inability to connect with the opposite sex tore at her, especially after she had an ovary removed and learned that she would be fertile for only a few more years. Christine dramatizes all these problems, as well as her romantic infatuation with another broadcaster at the station, and gives them a decidedly sinister tone. Director Antonio Campos has cited Hitchcock as an inspiration for the creepy scene in which Chris approaches two young lovers in a restaurant and invites them to tell their story on Suncoast Digest, her spiel growing ever more awkward as she betrays her envy of them. Later, monitoring her police radio for breaking news, Chris is stunned when one officer tells another, “You wanna hear something on a happier note? I finally touched Marie’s pussy last night.” More alone than ever, Chris sits down on her bed, gripping the edge of the mattress as if she’s been punched in the gut.
Campos spends the entire movie leading up to Chris’s suicide, but once Hall disappears from the film, he and Shilowich are hard-pressed for a conclusion. In the final scene, Chris’s coworker Jean tries to comfort herself with ice cream and TV, singing along to Sonny Curtis’s “Love Is All Around” from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “You’re gonna make it after all,” Curtis croons, the cheap irony of the lyric compounded by our memory of Moore playing a sunny TV journalist. The scene feels like an inadequate response to the life that has just been lost. Chubbuck’s story may reflect the social chaos of the Watergate era, but the woman in Christine is too sick in the head to be used as a symbol of anything except her own misery. As portrayed by Hall, Christine Chubbuck is so alone that, in the end, all she can do is throw herself on her viewers’ mercy. v