If It Bleeds, It Leads
As the actress who plays her, Rebecca Hall, sensitively put it, the only reason anyone’s ever heard of ‘70’s Florida TV news presenter, Christine Chubbuck, is her decision to shoot herself live on air. The suicide, conditioned by personal and professional disillusion and catalysed by deep depression, is said to have inspired Paddy Chayefsky’s seminal satire of media exploitation, Network. Antonio Campos’s film doesn’t lose sight of the role the station’s mantra, “if it bleeds, its leads”, played in the death of a troubled woman who wanted the news to be a serious investigation of the human condition rather than lurid entertainment, but corrects for Network’s emphasis on the medium, bringing the story back to the individual. It’s a humane and empathetic treatment that Chubbuck might have endorsed.
The movie relegates arguments around sensationalism to context, pushing Hall’s mopey, sullen, socially awkward subject, front and centre. This is a well-judged, realistic depiction of depression, encompassing all the Catch-22’s familiar to those who’ve suffered from the condition.
Chubbuck needs friends but can’t forge connections and pushes them away. She desires chiselled anchor, George, but her temperamental and combustive nature makes her an object of psychological interest (which he heartbreakingly tries to fix using faddish cod-therapy) rather than sexual intrigue. She craves respect and the endorsement of station boss, Michael, but to him she’s simply an obstinate kook who doesn’t understand the station’s editorial policy and thirst for ratings. She’s vulnerable, perhaps emotionally immature, and is desperate for her Mother’s love and attention in the absence of any adult relationship, but to her live-in Mom, she’s hard to handle and resentful of her new squeeze. It’s a perfect storm of loneliness and self-loathing, and then, while following up on a story eavesdropped on a police scanner, Chubbuck meets a paranoid gun seller.
As psychological portraits go, Christine covers enough ground to feel comprehensive. It’s dispassionately shot and well-acted. Hall’s character is treated with sensitivity and understanding. And the short bursts of offbeat score complement the distance we feel from Chubbuck, and that felt between her and the people in her life.
Her true intent during the fateful broadcast (her script described the horror to come as an “attempted suicide”) is unknowable and the movie doesn’t waste time trying to answer it. But it does provide enough insight into the tragic reporter to leave us feeling that the old cliché, a cry for help, might have been the real story and her preferred headline.