Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come,
and dig for it more than for hidden treasures;
who rejoice exceedingly,
and are glad when they find the grave?
Job 3:11, 20-22
Antonio Campos’ fact-based film is set in Sarasota, Florida in 1974, where Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a feature story reporter at the TV station WZRB. Like virtually all on-camera talent, Christine is ambitious, working at this backwater station after being dismissed for reasons not specified from a Boston station. She sets her sights on a possible Baltimore position when Bob Andersen (John Cullum, one of the owners of the two stations), spends time at the station observing staff while vacationing with his wife at their Florida cottage, Christine’s late night visit at his home to plead her case directly with him is one of the most embarrassing scenes in a film filled with such painfully inappropriate acts.
We first see Christine pretending to interview President Nixon. The camera pulls back to reveal two things—an opposite empty chair and behind her a large wooden box marked FRAGILE. And so, she proves to be, her inner turmoil covered up by a smile that fools no one. Concerned about her when colleagues ask her how she is, she always responds that she is fine. Of all the staff, her assistant Jean (Maria Dizzia) is especially concerned, but holds back in directly confronting her about her demeanor and behavior.
A perfectionist who closely edits the 16 mm excerpts (this is 1974 before the advent of videotape) of one of her interviews, on camera she is stiff, devoid of the warmth and spontaneity that make for a successful reporter. In her interview of a fruit seller, she cannot conceal her lack of interest. Her regular reviews of community people do bring her modest fame, but never enough to convince her boss, station manager Michael (Tracy Letts), to let her lead in the nightly news. He explains to her what was beginning to be the slogan of every Nightly News in the 70s, “If it bleeds, it leads.” However, they work in Sarasota, not Miami or Chicago, so even her visit to the local police fails to unearth anything sensational.
Christine has a crush on the well-coiffed news anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), but makes no overt move to act on her feelings. She dreams of moving with him to the Baltimore station. When he does propose that they dine out, she almost puts him off so that he says, “You’re not always the most approachable person.”
An admitted virgin with little dating experience, Christine is still living with her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron). Peg is happy to see her daughter prep for her night out because they have clashed constantly, most recently over Christine’s not accepting her mother’s new boyfriend. The dinner goes well, but the after-dinner event proves to be anything but the romantic affair she had hoped for. With a nervous introduction as to what is coming when they drive up to a building, George explains that they are going to a self-help event that had turned his life around. He assures her that she too will benefit from the experience.
Inside, they are split up as the members pair off, Christine drawing a woman who constantly raises questions about what she should do after she reveals her vocational ambition. None of the suggestions are of any value, coming from a woman who knows nothing of Christine’s situation. Christine is troubled not only by George’s deception and the embarrassment at talking over her situation with a stranger, but also by his revelation concerning the staff placement in Baltimore.
The film is a devastating look at a distraught woman breaking down before our eyes. Depressed by her lack of success in dating, she seeks help from a psychiatrist and talks about suicide. Also, the situation of women in the marketplace during the 70s was not good–it is well summed up in a reference to a female coworker by a man as “the little blonde number in Sports.”
The medium’s insatiable appetite for higher ratings is embodied in Michael’s frequent reminders to the staff, and especially to Christine, of their need to “climb out of the cellar.” Everything seems to converge upon the distraught woman, who, upon talking with a law officer about suicide, learns that a gun is the most certain way to do it. Thus, she buys one and stuffs it in her purse. She prepares her story—about suicide—and gains permission to lead off the broadcast of July 15, 1974, first on national news, and then her own. Her last words are, “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.”
I agree with the reviewer who said he wanted to stop the action while calling out, “Don’t do it!” After reaction shots of the staff, the film concludes ironically with the theme song of a popular TV show about a female reporter in Minneapolis, Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards, the irony concentrated in the line “You’re gonna make it after all.” The film is not for those who want an evening of light entertainment, but Rebecca Hall’s total identification with the character is worth watching, and maybe will lead to more discernment in relating to a depressed friend or colleague.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Dec. 2016 issue of VP.