Director: Antonio Campos
Stars: Rebecca Hall, Michael C Hall, J. Smith-Cameron
Antonio Campos’ film is the second to appear in the past year devoted to the story of Sarasota television news reporter Christine Chubbuck who committed suicide live on television in 1974. She shot herself in the head live “in living colour”. The other film, Robert Greene’s superb docu-drama Kate Plays Christine was one of last year’s best, picking at the threads left unspooled by Chubbuck’s violent death, including the very act of reconstructing it and our voyeuristic role in the audience waiting for the shot.
This in itself was an integral part of Chubbuck’s dramatic staged protest; a critique of our increasing appetite for “if it bleeds, it leads” tabloid journalism over more substantive work. Campos’ film acknowledges and discusses this element of her decision, putting it in the frame with pictures such as Nightcrawler and Network (itself inspired by Chubbuck’s actions), but more than that it crowbars with assumptive but intelligent empathy into the mindset of a career driven woman who perhaps felt constrained by the limits of her life and work.
Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck and it’s an incredible performance. She resembles her subject, but more than that her ability to inhabit Chubbuck is greatly enhanced by her physical choices. The way she carries herself, her posture, these things speak quietly of a woman losing an internal war, the battles of which are extrapolated by Campos. While there is brightness to the film (both in its visuals and the lightness of the original music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans), Hall always seems touched by darkness and close to the shadows. There are sinuous complexities to the work. She is passionate about her reporting, fueled by her integrity and a sense of duty to her chosen profession, yet Christine suggests that this is part of a far more intricate psychology that is investigated over the film’s two hours.
Chubbuck suffers from depression, something she acknowledges but fails to treat, itself a symptom of her tendency to self-criticise and in turn punish with inaction. This deliberate hesitancy to improve herself extends to her personal connections. She is infatuated with WZRB’s lead anchor George (Michael C Hall), yet when Christine has an opportunity to express her feelings for him she is standoffish, closed in spite of herself. She is trapped within her wiry frame. Hall’s eyes dart as her inner self looks for an exit. There’s a combined effort at work to produce such a finely tuned portrayal of a woman in crisis; Hall’s performance, Campos’ deft direction and Craig Shilowich’s intelligent observational screenplay.
As the subject of sensationalism hangs over the picture, it is a relief to find precious little hand-wringing melodrama in evidence. Campos resists heightening the drama, instead giving us the aura of authenticity through documenting the everyday, be it a team meeting to discuss story pitches, or moments pondering Chubbuck by herself, taking notes, making endless ‘to do’ lists. If Robert Greene’s film revealed the frustrating lack of information on hand about the real Chubbuck, Campos’ film investigates the possibilities with convincing levels of insight.
It helps that the film looks the part. The early 70’s decor feels on point, perhaps a little heightened as the warping of passing time accentuates particular fashions or styles, but the details are gorgeously realised nevertheless. The costumes in turn add a real sense of a consistent overall aesthetic.
While Hall steals the show as Chubbuck, her supporting cast are all excellent. Michael C Hall’s George is a mixture of things; a fluffed proto-celebrity, a caring co-worker, an opportunistic extrovert, a secret kindred spirit. His taciturn nature helps us understand Chubbuck’s frustration at pinpointing her affection for him. It’s not so much will-they won’t-they as should-they shouldn’t-they. Elsewhere Tracy Letts looks and acts the part as the station’s harangued and haranguing boss Mike Nelson, while Maria Dizzia and J. Smith-Cameron add (helpless) sympathetic colour as co-worker Jean and Chubbuck’s mother respectively. When Christine is clearly hurting, Jean extends an offer of help to her. Christine denies herself. Watching, we find ourselves yearning that she take the opportunity. It is at this point that one realises Christine has you.
The end feels like a stutter by its very nature. Foreknowledge doesn’t make Christine’s swift exit any less shocking. As it should, it leaves the film feeling as though someone left the airlock open. The black screen that announces the end credits brings precious little in the way of comfort. What helps Campos’ film excel (and props again to writer Shilowich) is that there is no single answer to the question at hand, if indeed there are answers at all. Several explanations hold water but each is as precarious as the next. The truth, one suspects, is a blending of them all.
The final film blessedly avoids feeling like a snuff reconstruction. Instead, this is a serious and insightful examination of a complicated personality, a brittle and troubled woman who had every opportunity to change her course, but who was hampered by her own illness. Everybody involved should be immensely proud and, if at home you’re torn between Campos’ dramatisation and Greene’s documentary exploration, why not do yourself a favour and choose both.
Christine is released her in the UK this week, and it’s distribution and promotion is less than it deserves. Sadly this seems destined to be one of those just-under-the-radar pieces that warrants attention and afterthought but might struggle due to all the noise around it. This is a film about responsibility. Responsibility in news journalism (always relevant), our responsibility to each other, and first and foremost, our responsibility to ourselves.