“We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad — worse than bad. They’re crazy.”
That speech from Network has been praised for 40 years by cinephiles as one of the most prophetic films providing insight of how television would develop. But for as much as it was a prediction of today’s state of TV news and reality shows through the mad prophet Howard Beale, this industry was already spiraling out of control — so much so that a 29-year-old reporter killed herself live on air in 1974.
This is the tragic story of Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter in Sarasota, Florida. Her story has sparked much controversy over the past four decades and has even been tied to being an influence on Network. That connection, of course, comes from Beale threatening to kill himself on air. But writer Paddy Chayefsky was already writing that before he heard about Chubbuck’s suicide. That should make her story and Network all the more horrific and 2016 had two movies that showcased this, Christine and the docudrama Kate Plays Christine (No. 18 on our Best Filmss of 2016 list). The latter of which becomes for Network and Chubbuck what Heart of Darkness is for Apocalypse Now and Vietnam.
Though there may not be any true correlation between Chubbuck suicide and Beale’s threat, they are equally revealing of each other as revealed in Kate Plays Christine. In just under two hours, director Robert Greene blurs the line of fact and fiction probing the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality of modern journalism (much like 2014’s Nightcrawler) while also delving into the psychology of acting while Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards) takes on the role of Chubbuck.
As a journalism major myself, seeing Sheil research Chubbuck is infinitely intriguing considering the backdrop of the film. Sheil takes this role with great seriousness, wanting to know the person that so many people only know because of how she took her life. Greene puts her on a quest to find if someone’s death (especially taken on their own terms) can be worth more than the life before it. That question is ultimately infuriating to Sheil the more she digs into the troubled mind of Chubbuck.
When Chubbuck announced her “attempted suicide” (using “attempted” to stay to her journalistic mentality in case it failed) before shooting herself, she introduced it by indicting her TV station’s affinity to show blood and gore because it draws viewers. More viewers, more money, less integrity.
Chubbuck’s death ultimately fed into that exact narrative she so despised and without it, we wouldn’t be talking about her or these movies. That’s what bothers Sheil so much the more she talks with people that knew Chubbuck, sees archive footage of her, discusses the psychology of suicide (especially on a public stage). The end goal of the filmmakers — she decides — is to see the final action of Chubbuck’s life. But what Sheil wants to show is the damaged person she grows to understand and can’t shake from herself as an actor.
Sheil is shown to be more than sympathetic to Chubbuck and uses Network’s infamous speech as a bit of motivation to understand the person so few people knew. She eventually becomes Chubbuck and the audience is led to believe. All the scenes Sheil is shown in feels like true archival footage of Chubbuck even when her former TV station says there is no footage of Chubbuck around.
Greene and Sheil eventually find one of Chubbuck’s former co-workers who has some tapes from his time at WXLT-TV with Chubbuck. Seeing Sheil as Chubbuck after that makes for an incredible experience akin to a police sketch of the soul- a feat Sheil produced without ever hearing Chubbuck speak. This blurring of reality is one of the films greatest accomplishments but it’s the introspection of the audience itself that makes this one of the most affecting films of the year.
The co-worker explains to Sheil that he constantly gets requests online to upload videos of Chubbuck because he has posted weather reports from the same time. He pauses to say he doesn’t want to share them because they only want to see her because of how she became famous.
While it’s easy for audiences to indict news stations for sensational news coverage to serve the one true god of money that Network indicted, it’s the audiences that are themselves to blame as consumers. Fresh off one of the most contested elections in U.S. history where there are debates about fake news versus mainstream media, this rings truer than ever.
What’s scarier is the film’s end proves that without saying as much. When it comes time for Sheil to pull the trigger to film the final scene and she says she can’t, it comes as a bit of a disappointment. This is what the audience has been promised for the past hundred minutes. But then we take a step back and realize what we wanted to see was a person kill herself for satisfaction.
In the end, while what Greene shows on screen is a bit morally questionable, so are the people staring at the screen.