By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — On July 15, 1974, a woman named Christine Chubbuck, a television reporter working at WXLT-TV, Channel 40 in Sarasota, Florida, shortly before her thirtieth birthday, began her spot on a live broadcast by saying that, in keeping with the station’s policy of bringing its viewers the latest in “blood and guts” in living color, they were about to see another first – an attempted suicide.
With that, she pulled out a gun and shot herself in the head.
On the air.
Christine (not to be confused with the 1983 horror thriller based on a Stephen King novel about an evil car) is a darkly probing, downbeat character study based on that true story that chronicles what led up to that dramatic and tragic event.
It is, to its considerable credit, about sensationalism without being sensationalistic.
And it features a remarkably fierce, mesmerizing performance by Rebecca Hall as the title character that would, in a film with a higher profile in a just universe, find her in the mix come Oscar time.
The focus is on the mental health of the troubled Chubbuck, a social misfit frustrated both at her workplace and in her personal life, which includes sharing an apartment, rather tensely, with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron).
She knows she’s skilled, apparently moreso than her colleagues, who find her unapproachable.
She can’t seem to get ahead. She has conflict with her If-it-bleeds-it-leads boss (Tracy Letts) over newsroom ethics and there’s a measure of casual sexism involved, but what Christine sees is that less talented colleagues, male and female, are being congratulated or promoted or rewarded while she stays in place.
She just knows that she’s destined for bigger and better things at a bigger and better television market, but she can’t seem to make it happen.
With her twenties nearly over, she finds that life is just increasingly difficult to navigate.
And the anchor she is romantically interested in (Michael C. Hall), while unfailingly polite, also seems unfailingly disinterested in her.
What more can she do to shape her own fate?
The intense speculative screenplay by producer Craig Shilowich, dramatizing an occurrence that reportedly influenced screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network, wrestles with depression and suicide, while exploring such themes as ambitiousness and loneliness, and deals in and dishes out discomfort, as does the protagonist, whose absorbing downward spiral comes at us pretty much without respite.
Oh, there’s a dollop of dry wit along the way, but it’s mostly chilly gallows humor about this damaged woman.
A feel-good movie this is decidedly not.
Hall makes her character fascinatingly brusque and abrasive and dismissive and self-absorbed and ill-at-ease and obsessive: charm is hardly even in Christine’s behavioral repertoire. And from an acting and audience’s-sympathy standpoint, that’s what makes Hall’s work downright brave: likability is not even an ingredient.
The film captures the feel of bygone seventies-era TV news by showing us that although television technology has changed drastically, the industry issues remain the same.
As for director Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer), he knows that he’s got a great lead performance on his hands and that the answer to the film’s central question about the film’s climactic event may be unknowable, which is why he keeps the central character up close and personal throughout.
So we’ll attempt 3 stars out of 4 for Christine. Rebecca Hall’s brilliant and disturbing portrait of a woman doing battle with misery is a thoroughly absorbing and disturbing answer to the beneath-the-headlines question of why.