In 1974, at the age of 29, Christine Chubbuck, a community affairs reporter for a local news show in Sarasota, Fla., shot herself on live television. Why did she do it? “Christine,” starring Rebecca Hall in her finest movie performance to date, attempts to figure out why.
To their credit, director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich don’t turn Chubbuck into a martyr. She may have been held back from advancement by the same cultural forces that restrained so many women in so many professions in that era (and not only in that era), but the film also makes it clear that Chubbuck was in many ways often her own worst enemy.
Recovering from a debilitating depression, she lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), who worries that her daughter is on the verge of a relapse. Away from her TV job, Chubbuck drives around in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle singing along to John Denver tracks and volunteers as a puppeteer at shows for disabled children. Even when she is at her most unburdened, there is an almost scary intensity to her that belies her brief, wide smiles.
At work, she chafes at the soft-edged assignments on her community interest beat – the zoning disputes and strawberry festivals – and constantly lobbies Michael (Tracy Letts), her producer, for more hard-hitting stories. But she also bristles at the sensationalism that is so much a part of her station’s news coverage, the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach. Since her station is, as Michael is forever pointing out, in the ratings basement, her righteous crusade is made doubly difficult.
Chubbuck, as Hall portrays her, is a volatile mix of wised-up and innocent. She pines like a schoolgirl for George (Michael C. Hall), the blow-dried anchorman who used to be a star school quarterback, but it’s not altogether shocking that, despite her woebegone sensuality and sporadic flirtatiousness, she has never been with a man. She knows what she is up against at work, where she can’t compete – professionally or otherwise – with the perky weather girl, and recognizes, with a raw realism, that, as she approaches 30, she is about to hit a career wall.
What complicates the scenario is that Chubbuck, on camera, is too stern-faced, too “hot,” for such a “cool” medium (to invoke Marshall McLuhan). Michael is not wrong to keep her at bay, especially since her ideas for investigative pieces aren’t all that gangbusters anyway. Chubbuck lacks what most successful TV personalities, for better or worse, possess: an innate sense of how they come across on camera. Her ungainly, almost feral presence foredooms her, and, on some level, despite her ambition, she knows it.
Hall gives us Chubbuck in all her vehement contradictoriness. There’s a marvelous scene when Chubbuck hesitantly accepts a dinner invitation from George, during which she hopes not only to advance her career but also to fulfill a romantic fantasy. (Gently, he tells her, “You’re not always the most approachable person.”) The wariness, the approach-avoidance that at times makes her seem both hard-bitten and maidenly, is on full display. Michael C. Hall plays this scene, and the subsequent one in which the date disappointedly and unpredictably veers off course, with the same noncondescension that graces Hall’s performance. George may be a lightweight, but he knows full well his limitations. In some ways, he understands Chubbuck better than she understands herself. He’s a self-deprecating good guy in a profession rife with swelled heads.
Chubbuck’s demise should not be mistaken for some kind of parable about the wages of media sensationalism – unlike, say, “Network,” which came out in 1976 and glancingly drew on certain aspects of Chubbuck’s story in its depiction of Peter Finch’s “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.” Her story, despite the filmmakers’ occasional attempts to overextend its reach, is too eccentric for that. It’s to Hall’s credit that, in the end, we see Chubbuck as a victim of no one so much as herself. Grade: B+ (Rated R for a scene of disturbing violence and for language including some sexual references.)