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Despite a lack of answers, Robert Greene’s audacious documentary is an acting class where credit is earned for effort
What happens when we speak for those who cannot? It’s an uneasy question approached by Kate Plays Christine, the latest audacious documentary from audacious documentarian Robert Greene. Greene, who has a noble history of working outside the documentary’s formal confines, enlists one Kate Lyn Sheil for his grandest effort yet. Sheil, an otherwise unremarkable presence for those unfamiliar with House of Cards, and a host of Floridian actors enter the head space of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota news anchor who committed on-air suicide in 1974.
If you’re tempted to look, don’t, and not simply for moral reasons. The only recorded footage of Chubbuck’s death — a revolver bullet to the back of her head — has been thankfully locked away. Of course, the irony in such a public, gruesome act, and as several of Chubbuck’s former colleagues point out, is that the 29 year-old newswoman wanted to be seen. As Sheil hops around Florida beaches connecting the dots between Chubbuck’s work and home lives, someone offers up that it’s easier to commit suicide publicly than privately live with the pain inside themselves.
Greene has a reputation for combining the dramatic with ostensibly non-fiction subjects. Fake It So Real morphs from yet another run-of-the-mill pro wrestling exposé into a heartening road movie. 2014 WFF alum Actress has Brandy Burre portray herself while making a family-altering decision to return to the stage. Reality and artifice mutate in front of our eyes in Kate Plays Christine. In as close to a talking head as Greene will allow himself to get, his players reflect on the figures they’re portraying directly to the camera before re-imagining pivotal (or what they believe were pivotal) moments leading to Chubbuck’s death. Chubbuck “converses” with her mother and later, “confesses” to her brother that she’s contemplating suicide. In a very liberal interpretation, Sheil as Chubbuck, now spray-tanned and sporting period-appropriate clothing and a flowing brown wig, stumbles on a trusted coworker having sex with the man Chubbuck long harbored romantic feelings for. This is all qualification because it isn’t enough to show, in the deceased reporter’s own words, the “blood and guts.” They want to earn it.
Sheil comes close to earning it. At one point, she recalls the “You’ve got to get mad” speech. Rather than a sweaty Peter Finch thumping his fists on the set of Network, it’s a whispered soliloquy in front of a vanity mirror. Sheil waxes and wanes about how Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky re-appropriated one woman’s singular statement and raked in Oscar gold for their thieving efforts. That’s a valid complaint, but it isn’t one she entirely believes either, later breaking down mid-shoot and protesting that Chubbuck’s decision was a selfish one made by a sick person. Like her physical transformation, Sheil’s anxiety (however feigned by her role as an actor) crosses with the depression she’s trying to understand. “I don’t know what this fucking scene is, Robert,” Sheil blurts out on set. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Sheil and Greene don’t find answers to the questions they’re after, and as a creative duo, they’re ever vigilant about the wish-fulfillment and sadism that comes attached to a project like this — right up to the final moment. Fortunately, Kate Plays Christine is an acting class where credit is awarded for effort, and it’s the moments closer to fiction than fact that ring most true. When Sheil visits the anchor’s former home, she peers out at the oceanfront that was once Chubbuck’s backyard view. Earlier, we’re reminded of one of the many differences between actor and muse: Sheil can’t swim worth a damn. Acting as her subject, she steps out onto the beach all the same. Contrary to every other re-enactment, there’s none of Keegan DeWitt’s aqueous score to accompany the moment, just a woman staring out at the horizon as the storm clouds close in.