Film Review: Christine

Fascinating biopic of TV reporter Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide on the air in 1974. As the title character, Rebecca Hall gives an award-caliber performance.
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Forty-two years ago, 29-year-old Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter in Sarasota Florida, blew her brains out on live television, anticipating—some say informing—the iconic scene in Paddy Chayefsky’s satiric Network (1976) with Peter Finch’s anchorman Howard Beale assassinated on air in front of an audience of millions.

The real-life Chubbuck, at least as presented in Antonio Campos’ layered biopic Christine, is fiercely ambitious, frustrated at every turn, disappointed in love, and devoured by psychological demons, though it’s never made clear precisely what’s wrong with her.

That information is evidently not known, but would serve no purpose anyway, reducing a complex character into a sensationalized case study. As it is, that’s a potential danger throughout.

But quite remarkably, Christine never morphs into a reenactment of psychopathology, thanks to Campos’ skillful direction, Craig Shilowich’s sensitive script, and especially Rebecca Hall’s rounded interpretation of an intelligent young woman who is unable to navigate the world (professionally or personally) and is totally unaware of the angry and off-putting impression she makes. She is a gentle soul too, at moments evoking Laura in The Glass Menagerie as she performs self-revealing little scenes with hand puppets for children in a pediatric hospital. Christine is just plain luckless.

She lives with her mother (terrifically played by J. Smith Cameron), a hapless child-woman, in a tacky Florida apartment awash in meaningless bric-a-brac. Still a virgin and wanting to have children, Christine suffers from a painful ovarian cyst (that may or may not be cancerous), which requires a partial hysterectomy.

On the job, her beat includes strawberry festivals and chickens laying eggs when she desperately wants to cover more meaty topics, ideally telling a story that could lead off the news. It’s an ambition made all the more pointed in an era of Vietnam, Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation. There’s so much happening in the real world and Christine is not even a footnote in TV journalism.

In one scene, it seems she’s finally interviewing someone of consequence. The camera is focused on Christine and the viewer sees an authoritative, articulate reporter at the top of her game until the camera turns its lens on the empty chair she’s addressing. In her imagined interview, she is graceful and easy to look at, which is in stark contrast to her stiff and angular body language the rest of the time.

Her irascible and beleaguered editor Michael (Tracy Letts, giving another top-notch performance), with whom she frequently locks horns, says she’s the most intelligent reporter on the team. But given the station’s lousy ratings, he needs blood and gore. “If it bleeds, it leads,” he states.

That aside, he doesn’t think she’s ready to cover heavy-duty news. Let’s remember it’s the ’70s and the fact that she’s a woman doesn’t help. Her lack of obvious charm—no one can accuse her of being perky—is yet a further obstacle, though none of that is spelled out.

The creative team does an excellent job in evoking the era—from its hairdos, clothes, cars, music and most vividly its primitive broadcast technology. Production designer Scott Kuzio hit the mark. A particularly resonating snippet features the iconic opening sequence to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” with Mary’s toss of her hat while the theme song—an optimistic emblem for the successful woman journalist in a liberated new society—plays in the background: “Who can turn the world on with her smile?…You’re gonna make it after all.”

But that’s not Christine’s world. The stakes are raised when station owner Bob Anderson (played by the always fine John Cullum), a cunning and slightly creepy businessman, surfaces, hoping to pluck talent from the Sarasota station for his operation in the much larger Baltimore market. For Christine it’s the opportunity of a lifetime as she hurls herself into as many projects as possible, endlessly attempting to catch Anderson’s attention.

She is most comfortable when she is working. Still, she is lonely and very much attracted to George (Michael C. Hall), an overly coiffed, somewhat dim-witted but benign anchorman at the station who is intrigued by Christine, but as the story unfolds it’s clear he mostly views her as a charity case in need of encouragement. He doesn’t question her journalistic talents but rather her personality that he deems a career obstacle. “You’re not always the most approachable person,” he gently tells her. He likes playing supportive mentor, thus boosting his own faltering self-image. It’s to the creative team’s credit that he’s a sad character too, even as he’s unwittingly cruel.

When George invites her to dinner, Christine dolls herself up in a sexy dress and flirts with him. But after dinner he escorts her to a “transactional analysis” therapy session—it’s a world of psychobabble—where she is painfully awkward at first and in the end reveals far more than she should for no reason. It’s neither healing for her nor seductive to George, who has aroused romantic feelings in her that he had no business arousing.   

To twist the knife a little further, Christine learns that he has been tapped for a slot at the Baltimore station. He recommended a ditsy female reporter who will be joining him in Baltimore, but failed to advocate for Christine at all. It’s a quadruple sucker punch propelling her into a downward spiral, including her demeaning encounter with an inebriated Bob Anderson where she begs him to give her a shot in the Baltimore market, to which he makes patronizing, non-committal noises at her.

Fueled by rage and jealousy, she stomps around the city tracking down a gruesome event—any gruesome event—that will earn her (and it does) that allusive shot at a lead-in story. She also acquires a gun.  

Before going on the air, she sits in front of a mirror touching up her eyes, making sure she looks pretty (nice detail). Christine takes her place at the anchor desk and the camera rolls. In a stunning act of self-loathing and defiance—the subtext: you want blood, I’ll give it to you—she withdraws her gun and shoots herself in the head. It’s a shocker even for those who know what’s coming. Indeed, if this were not a true story, the creative team could not get away with this scene. It would feel overstated and contrived. Fiction has to be plausible. Life doesn’t.

For whatever reasons, and it may simply be coincidence, Christine Chubbuck is a hot topic now. Earlier this summer, Kate Plays Christine, a meta-documentary about a film actress preparing to play Chubbuck, was released. It’s tragically ironic that this virtually unknown reporter who wanted recognition more than anything is finally in the limelight thanks to her own bloody demise on television. Her editor was clearly on target when he said, “If it bleeds, it leads,” though in her case it took more than four decades for her death and by extension her life to get seriously explored.

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