“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.”
During the summer of 1974, local television reporter Christine Chubbuck shot herself in the head on the air while presenting a live news segment at a small station in Sarasota, Florida. I’m not spoiling anything by saying Christine leads up to this jarring moment, but screenwriter Craig Shilowich and director Antonio Campos apparently aim to demonstrate why it happened. A dispositive answer never comes—it could have been a number of reasons, as the film suggests—but that’s because no one but Chubbuck knows for sure. Christine isn’t really about this singular moment, anyway—it’s an intense, sometimes humorous but thoroughly wrenching character study of the solitary woman behind it.
The first time we see Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is, appropriately, on a TV monitor: she’s alone in a room interviewing an imaginary Richard Nixon, aggressively grilling him on Watergate. She watches herself, taking notes on how she looks and sounds. She asks a passing colleague about her performance, probing as to whether she comes off as warm and human. This scene succinctly sets up Chubbuck’s dilemma: she wants to be a real journalist going after important newsworthy stories, not the fluff pieces about chickens she usually covers. The problem is, she doesn’t come off quite right: she’s awkward, brusque, combative, and not particularly “feminine,” characteristics that she’s all too aware thwart her chances of improving her lot with a spot as an anchor in a larger market.
Chubbuck lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and pines for a colleague, anchorman George (Michael C. Hall). She’s an idealist who fights her toxic boss (Tracy Letts) as he pushes to sensationalize the news for the sake of higher ratings. She’s obsessed with her work, which is increasingly unfulfilling. She’s also privately coming undone, something crystal clear from her depressed tendencies, wild mood swings, and bitter resentments toward others she thinks have it better in one way or another than she does.
The cast is spectacular, but it’s no surprise that Hall (Rebecca, not Michael C.) carries Christine—she has to. Hall owns the role: her performance is flawlessly mesmerizing. Resembling a severe Olive Oyl crossed with Wednesday Addams, she deftly uses body language and posture to convey Chubbuck’s uneasy and awkward intensity. Hall slowly and deliberately brings Chubbuck’s frustrations—with her boss, her career, and herself—to a rolling boil. The tone here is clinically journalistic, with the facts of Chubbuck’s situation laid out one by one and offered into evidence for the viewer to make what he or she will of them.
As I watched, I expected Christine to make some profound statement—something about the integrity of “news” in America, gender equality, idealism versus reality, mental health, all of the above. It plants the seeds, but it doesn’t quite get there—it’s either noncommittal or too subtle, I can’t tell which. About halfway through, I realized I wasn’t catching a clear message or a moral. Maybe there isn’t one. A reference to The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be interpreted as irony or cynicism, and it exemplifies Christine‘s ambiguous motive. The film has the feint whiff of exploitation, yet it still tells a lot about Christine Chubbuck and what pushed her over the edge. Christine is respectful to who she was, depicting her as far more than her final moment: she was smart, her peers respected her, she volunteered as a performer at a children’s hospital, and she struggled with many demons. If the actual event played out the way it does in this film, it was a chillingly snarky, mean way to make a point. If nothing else, Christine shows what depression can do to a person.
(AMC River East) B
Chicago International Film Festival