US (2016) Dir. Antonio Campos
“In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living colour, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.”
Those were the last words spoken by WXLT-TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck before she placed a gun to her head and shot herself live on air. This horrific event took place on July 15th 1974 one month before Chubbuck’s 30th birthday and forever put her in TV infamy. The story behind her suicide is a typical but difficult one to watch.
Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) works in Sarasota, Florida for a local news station that is struggling in the ratings. Her boss Michael Nelson (Tracy Letts) has given Chubbuck her own community affairs talk show, which she takes very seriously, but her commitment to running human interest stories puts Chubbuck at odds with Nelson who wants juicier stories to get ratings.
Rumours of the station being shut down abound but in fact, station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) was looking to take someone from the team and move them to a bigger job in Baltimore. Keen to earn this promotion, Chubbuck buys a police scanner to pick up juicer stories but Nelson is still not happy with her stories, making Chubbuck depressed and angry, and desperate to give Nelson what he wants.
I’m not sure what is more disturbing – watching this tragic story unfold knowing exactly how it is going to end or simply watching this film BECAUSE I know how it ends. That is not to say that watching a suicide is something I take pleasure in as I don’t, but as someone who has/does suffer from depression and has been suicidal before, there was something about this infamous story that held a morbid curiosity for me.
Describing Chubbuck’s story as “typical” wasn’t meant to be flippant or dismissive; the context in this instance is that it is typical of the suffering people with depression and self-esteem issues have, and follows a beaten path any of us will recognise. Chubbuck was a talented, intelligent hard working news reporter but couldn’t catch a break – she held an unrequited crush on fellow news anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall) and lamented how she was still a virgin at 29 years old.
Because this film (and others) were made without the co-operation of Chubbuck’s only remaining family, her brother, much of what is featured in this dramatisation has to be taken at face value; indeed the verbiage quoted at the top of this review isn’t replicated verbatim in the film, right down to giving the station a different name. This is a moot point given this isn’t a documentary but that doesn’t make it any less harrowing.
Christine is really a sympathetic character study of a person trapped by the neurological demons of depression and a victim of circumstance. Not sympathetic in a “aww bless” way, sympathetic in that she needs hug and understanding, someone to listen to her and pinpoint her problems. It’s easy with hindsight to see why those who worked with Chubbuck simply saw her as driven, hard-headed and a little humourless but to modern eyes the warning signs for deeper issues are glaring.
I’ve said this before about modern historical characters in films but there are very clear signs that, had they been aware at the time, Chubbuck might have been suggested to be on the Autism Spectrum. For this Aspie, her fastidious attention to the minutiae, inability to compromise and open up to people are all familiar traits for the spectrum, but this supposition on my part and not necessarily integral to understanding Chubbuck.
There is another side to Chubbuck that needs to be taken into account that makes her suicide even more tragic, the regular puppet shows she put on for children with learning disabilities using homemade puppets. This, along with her crusade to bring human interest stories to the station and raise awareness of important local issues instead of trite fare like new strawberry crops, shows she had a social conscience too.
Like many depressed and troubled people, Chubbuck had a strained relationship with her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), whom she called by her first name. Despite her best efforts, Peg couldn’t get through to her daughter nor understand what was behind her protean moods, referring to Boston as an apparent precedent for Chubbuck’s troubles.
Worse still is that the final moments of her life were carefully orchestrated, right down to Chubbuck not only scripting her parting words but also the follow-up news story of her actions, which, along with the fact she pointed the gun behind her ear, suggests she expected to survive.
Antonio Campos is not a director I am familiar with but a quick look at his resume shows he has a penchant for challenging cinema built around complex character studies, so Chubbuck’s story is a perfect fit. As alluded to earlier, Campos doesn’t seem intent on sensationalising Chubbuck’s story (ironic given the direction her job took) or presenting it as prying, macabre parable; he tells the story, shows all sides of it (based on available material) and lets it do all the heavy hitting.
Maybe almost all of it – Rebecca Halls’ performance is astounding. She is a dynamo running on nervous energy, with yearning wide eyes on a taut face that can turn into a scared frown at the drop of a hat; her physical presence is awkward, appearing two feet tall despite her lanky, skinny frame. The nuanced mechanical tics come naturally and the desperation and melancholy behind the steely determination is palpable. Why Hall wasn’t nominated for an Oscar let alone awarded one is criminal.
Chubbuck’s brother has the original footage of his sister’s suicide, vowing never to watch or release it. There is a fake clip on YouTube which you should ignore. Christine is a film you can’t ignore despite how it will leave you haunted after watching it.
R.I.P Christine Chubbuck.