Director: Antonio Campos
R | 1h 55min | Biography, Drama | 14 October 2016 (USA)
Director Antonio Campos’s Christine is, by dint of fate, actually one of two significant releases hitting cinemas this year that explore the real-life tragedy of Christine Chubbock (Robert Greene’s hybrid doc Kate Plays Christine being the other). For the uninitiated, Chubbock was a 30-year old American regional television journalist and news programme anchor who killed herself on the air live in 1974; the bizarre manner of her death fuelling lurid myths and rumours ever since. Of the two films, Campos’s film takes the dramatic reconstruction road to presenting us with the last few days of Chubbock’s life. Yet despite the grim and shocking subject matter, Campos and writer Craig Shilowich deliver, in concert with a career-best performance from star Rebecca Hall, a compelling, compassionate and nuanced portrait of Chubbock during her last moments alive. Avoiding sensationalism, the film successfully reclaims Chubbock as a full human being, whilst never offering up one simple answer that could explain that terrible, final act she took in front of the cameras.
Campos’s film immediately wrongfoots those coming to it expecting shrill dramatics and heavy foreshadowing. As played by Hall, Christine appears to us at first as a committed journalist who believes passionately in the medium and is working hard to be taken seriously, as she tackles issues of interest and concern to the region as the lead reporter on the local community interest segment for the Sarasota, Florida-based channel she is employed by. Sure, she seems a little wooden when presenting, and comes off as a little awkward when in the company of colleges off the air, but her clashes with her gruff bear of a boss Michael (a big but multi-faceted performance from Tracey Letts) over his belief that the future of their channel lies in the “if it bleeds it leads” approach, suggests someone with problems stemming more from a stubborn “principles over pragmatism” mindset. She even volunteers at a local kids’ hospital. This does not look like a woman on the verge of suicide.
Only gradually does the narrative tease out to us the succession of quiet volcanoes erupting in Christine’s life that, unbeknownst to those around her, are mentally closing off her escape routes. Even then it is never made clear which of these is the activating agent, or if there are any real “culprits” behind it. That feels appropriate, as it would seem trite to reduce such a momentous act to one simple reason, especially given how “we never saw it coming” is such a familiar, shocked refrain when something like this happens.
Thus we learn that Christine suffers from mysterious abdominal pains that drive her more than once to the hospital, where she is eventually told she may not be able to have children due to cystic growths. In constant pain from this and worried about being trapped in a future without children, Christine is probably not best positioned to deal with the brickbats of work. Her editor Michael rides roughshod over her in the newsroom day after day, boorishly blaming her forthrightness on “feminism” and driving her to dismay with his demands for more salacious coverage, when she takes the more “old fashioned” view that the news team should assume they are better informed than the public, and aim to educate rather than placate. Her home life seems to mainly consist of struggling not to snap at her mother, who’s house she still inhabits and who’s attempts at warm conversations only provoke acidic responses from Christine. One of their arguments wanders on to the delicate topic of certain “dark times” that Christine endured in her previous home city, Boston, which casts an ominous cloud over the proceedings. It is also easy to guess from her body language and aggressive stances both here and in response to the doctor’s probing about her sex life that Christine herself is still a virgin, something we learn is in fact the case later, a revelation that offers greater context for her quite priggish views on love, marriage and motherhood. Her barely concealed crush on the suave lead anchor George Ryan (the excellent Michael C. Hall) seems almost childish, and looks likely to end in desperate heartbreak.
But even as Campos’s film shows us how misery upon misery is piled on Christine in these final days - from having segments she is hyperactively excited about sarcastically cut to ribbons by Michael, to seeing what she presumes is a romantic date with George turn out to be his secret plan to introduce her to a new-age therapy group - the intelligent screenplay complicates any easy reading of why this young woman, with so much to offer, just can’t get on the wavelength necessary to feel that she is bailing out more water than is flooding in. Is Christine in some ways her own worst enemy here? She is, it has to be said, stiff in front of the camera and not always possessed of the best judgement in approaching her stories. Certainly she lacks George’s easy charisma and unruffled poise, and these are flaws which she isn’t able to fully see are holding her back compared to colleagues she dismisses as less talented. Her fumbling attempts to interpret her boss’s new direction lead to some toe-curling failures for one thing, the hurt of being confronted with her misjudgements often wincingly plain on her face. In one painful scene we see her trying to convince a cheery local police captain to give her a run down of all the grisly crimes in his area so she can create a blood-drenched news item, only to have the utterly baffled officer struggle to come up with anything that could make Sarasota look remotely like what she wants it to (presumably she was aiming for New York at its worst).
But particularly interesting - and undeniably tragic - is the way Campos’s film hints at what might be a more fundamental problem: Christine just can’t seem to see a hand of friendship when it is offered. Even when what she wants is in front of her - connection, trust and validation - it all goes wrong somehow and she further withdraws behind a shield of brusqueness and evasiveness. There are no villains in this story, with many of her co-workers, be it George or her younger protege Jean, all trying to reach out at certain points, only to fail to really grab a hold of this increasingly distant woman. At one point George, whilst on their date, confesses to deep frustration with his own life also, with a promising sports career in college having ended years ago via a bad tackle that ruined his shoulder. He muses he has never once moved out of Florida, and feels as stuck as her. But it seems such gestures of solidarity with the beleaguered Christine aren't enough, or are just coming too late. And that George turns out to be more interested in being a therapy partner for Christine than a lover means that even this gesture of kindness seems to confirm to her how everything just gets poisoned in her orbit. Sometimes even people who seem to symbolise the very decline in her profession make pertinent points: when a desperate Christine confronts the wealthy magnate who owns their station in order to not-so-subtly beg for a job promotion, his tipsy observation that he tries not to overthink things and just spends his money as his gut tells him to, is arguably a piece of advice Christine could do with heeding.
As the rejections and embarrassments pile up in front of Christine, Hall is convincing at all times as a woman increasingly horrified at how the walls have closed in on her, growing more and more certain that she just can’t - to paraphrase George - “find that person inside herself that can be presented to the outside.” Never one-note, this relatable, affecting performance really gives Chubbuck her humanity back and helps make the film more a lament at the great talent and potential that was lost than a gratuitous exercise in regurgitating myths.