One of the most interesting character studies in film this year comes in Christine, starring Rebecca Hall (you might know her from Vicky Cristina Barcelona). The drama, which premiered at Sundance back in January and is set for a wide release on Oct. 14, tells the story of the eponymous Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter in 1970s Sarasota, Florida who commits suicide on air during a live news broadcast. The plot may spark memories of the 1976 news industry satire film Network, in which main character Howard Beale announces he will commit suicide on air. However, unlike Network, which is fiction, Christine is based on a true story, and a devastating one at that.
The film, set in 1974, follows WXLT-TV news reporter Chubbuck in the final days of her life, as she struggles with depression and eventually shoots herself in the head with a revolver on live television. This is all true to life, and the real Chubbuck tragically killed herself on air on July 15, 1974. She announced, according to multiple sources including Sally Quinn's 5,500-word profile of Chubbuck in The Washington Post from August 1974, that the station would now bring viewers "another first. An attempted suicide."
At the time, Chubbuck's suicide was a tragic and terrifying moment for all involved and it left many people asking why it happened. Quinn's lengthy Washington Post story reported on the facts of the suicide but also explored Chubbuck's life and looked at her from a human angle, revealing that the 29-year-old reporter struggled with a lifelong battle with depression. Her mother told local news that she had "no close friends, no romantic attachments," and even referred to her daughter as a "spinster at 29."
Quinn reported that Chubbuck was a virgin, and that she had been heartbroken to learn that the man she was interested in at the station, George Peter Ryan, was seeing her friend Andrea Kirby. These details all paint a devastating portrait of a struggling young woman who, especially in the less aware climate of Florida in the 1970s, was in the depths of a mental illness that could not be understood or approached properly by others in her life.
Chubbuck's story is a sad and fascinating one, and in recent years it has even taken an additional, macabre turn. The video of Chubbuck's suicide, as reported by Abraham Riesman of Vulture in an investigative piece, is one of the most sought-after videos in the world because it has never been made available anywhere since it aired live. A documentary about an actor's preparation to play Chubbuck called Kate Plays Christine, which coincidentally also premiered at Sundance this year, features interviews that confirm there is only one copy of the tape, and Riesman goes further, discovering that Quinn from The Washington Post did watch the recorded footage in 1974 while doing research for her story and that now the only tape is held by a "very large law firm," and will not be released. Some people, Riesman conveys, are so darkly obsessed with finding the video that the person in possession of it feared for their safety.
It's unlikely that Christine will address the twisted obsession with Chubbuck's suicide tape, as it seems like a sensitive portrait of its subject, less interested in salacious details than in the elements of Chubbuck's life and environment that made her who she was and influenced her tragic decision to ultimately end her life on television.
Images: The Orchard
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Christine Chubbuck as Christine Chubbard.