In 1974, television news show host and journalist Christine Chubbuck committed suicide live on air. Suffering from severe depression, Christine was committed to continuing the network’s obsession with blood and guts TV with this pre-meditated act. Though believed to be the inspiration for Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network, where her character was substituted for a veteran male news anchorman set to be sent to pasture, she remains an unknown. The taped footage of the suicide is kept under lock and key, and inaccessible online, and the true reasoning behind what led to her suicide remains only speculation.
Kate Lyn Shiel, an indie-film darling whom many will recognise from House of Cards and more recently The Girlfriend Experience, has been tasked with portraying Christine in a filmed adaptation of her life. She becomes the film’s central focus; but serves as a conduit for the exploration of Christine’s grotesque death, and the psychological justification for her action. It is through her extensive preparation for the role – which includes readings from Christine’s memoir, a trip to her hometown of Sarasota, Florida to meet with her former colleagues, a visit to her old home, and an investigation into the circumstances of her death – that she (and we) learn a little about Christine.
Still, by the film’s end she remains an enigma, and director Robert Greene (Actress) seems most interested in revealing this. Kate’s attempt to transform into Christine is purely on a cosmetic level – a wig, brown contact lenses, a spray tan and the act of purchasing and learning to shoot a gun – and she struggles to capture and embody her spirit. But, she soon realises that this is impossible. On one hand she has no video footage to work with, and on the other she is meant to be impersonating an individual that committed suicide on live TV, and no one can admit to adequately understanding or conveying someone’s decision to do that. As the re-enactments attempt to construct a story meant to convince a viewer of her actions, Kate finds herself an unwilling participant; her conscience tested. Kate Plays Christine challenges the morality of re-enactments in documentaries. Even if you have evidence of the actual event; how can you claim to have an authoritative sense of license over it?
This film offers serious criticism on the biopic and performance, and is a fascinating exploration of the acting process. No matter how skilled the prosthetic make-over is, or the voice impersonation, no one should ever feel confident in re-creating a subject for the screen. As Kate struggles to do justice to Christine’s life, she questions the morality of evening trying to.
Through candid interviews with Christine’s former colleagues, and network heads, Greene digs deep into the views on ‘blood-and-guts’ TV, and what makes a grisly sensationalist story too intense for the air. We understand that Justine grew increasingly frustrated when her stories were dropped for less worthy disaster-media, to feed the growing hunger.
We see some sequences from the filmed adaptation that Kate has been cast and been preparing for, and the documentary becomes a production behind-the-scenes, but the genius of this film is that there is no actual film. Interviews with actors hired to film these scenes are very insightful, as they each have an opinion on Christine’s decision and provide revealing accounts of the struggles they’ve experienced in their own careers.
As Kate attempts to re-enact the suicide in the film’s final moments she finds that she cannot, spouting frustration at the camera (and Greene?). We are not sure at this point whether Kate is channeling Christine or expressing her own frustration about the role, the industry and her career. Is she still aligned with the vision of the director at this point or has she completely rejected it? We don’t know, and the resonance of this film is in the questions it leaves hanging.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Robert Greene
Writer: Robert Greene
Runtime: 112 minutes