[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Christine opens this weekend in limited release.]
What happened to Christine Chubbuck is likely unforgettable to those who saw it and completely unknown to those who didn’t. In his retelling of Chubbuck’s story, director Antonio Campos seems to be at a loss with which audience he’s playing to, and it makes it difficult to know what constitutes a spoiler when the “spoiler” is the whole reason the film exists. And while Christine’s sad fate makes her a doomed character, Campos doesn’t know how to build on her choices, and instead reduces her to a victim of mental illness, circumstance, and her anti-social tendencies. While Rebecca Hall gives an incredible lead performance and imbues the character with a tremendous amount of sympathy, Christine can’t find a new angle on this tragic event.
On July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck (Hall), a reporter for a local TV news station in Sarasota, Florida committed suicide on air using a handgun. However, Christine begins with Christine just like any career-minded person looking to get ahead while struggling to hold on to his or her values. Her sexist boss Michael (Tracy Letts) wants to push the station towards “If it bleeds it leads” reporting, which conflicts with Christine’s desire for to report stories of substance even if they’re not “juicy” (e.g. re-zoning). Christine also has an unrequited crush on the news anchor George (Michael C. Hall), health problems, and doesn’t know how to relate to anyone outside her friend and co-worker Jean (Maria Dizzia). Unfortunately, at every turn, Christine can’t seem to catch a break, whether it’s due to her own behavior or matters beyond her control.
Campos creates two audiences for Christine by not hinting at the beginning of the film what happened to Chubbuck. When it comes to films based on true stories, there are some events that are big enough where it would be silly to foreshadow or outright leap to the climax. Pearl Harbor, for all of its faults, wisely doesn’t begin by telling us to keep an eye out for December 7, 1941. However, Chubbuck’s story has been lost to time somewhat, and if you don’t know it, then you’ll spend a whole movie wondering what Campos is leading to and wondering if you should care beyond feeling general empathy for another human being.
I knew what happened to Chubbuck going into Christine and theoretically, that’s the film’s hook: does Campos have a take on what would drive a person to commit suicide on live television? Sadly, Campos doesn’t know how to dig beneath the psychological layers to come up with anything unique or revelatory. We never feel like we’re in Christine’s head, and instead we’re outside witnessing a poor victim of circumstance. Campos also doesn’t do anything with commentary on modern media culture or second-wave feminism, both of which are alluded to, but neither is built upon. It’s like Campos wants to say, “This story is still relevant,” and yet the film rarely does more than compound Christine’s loneliness, which, while depressing, lacks insight or depth.
The only person who brings life to the character and the film is Hall. Hall is a hit-or-miss actor with me. I feel like you’re just as likely to get something captivating like her turn in The Awakening as you are with her wild miscalculation in the awful Lay the Favorite. Thankfully, Hall is magnificent as Chubbuck, and makes the character’s alienation and isolation palatable. Even though she’s taller than most of her peers (a nice way of visualizing Christine’s towering intellect and integrity), she stands out like a teenage girl who hit her growth spurt before all her friends. Her baritone voice makes her sound like a kid who wants to be taken seriously by adults, and it all adds up to a personal tragedy that lets Chubbuck exist as an individual rather than the headline Campos is pushing.
Christine never delves past that headline, and while Chubbuck’s death certainly had meaning to those who knew her personally, the rest of us are still outside looking in, waiting for answers after this bleeding lead-in.