Rebecca Hall Astonishes As Suicidal Reporter In "Christine"

The morning of July 15, 1974 was a temperate one in Sarasota, Florida. As the mercury crept toward the 80 degree mark, the humidity dropped, giving way to wisps of white against a sparkling blue sky – the kind of weather that renders weathermen useless. It was fitting, then, that 29-year-old WXLT reporter Christine Chubbuck had a presumably unoccupied meteorologist lined up as her guest on that day’s edition of “Suncoast Digest.” Tucked away from the sublime coastal weather, the WXLT team readied their 9 o’clock news hour. There would be as many juicy national stories as they could pack in, plus the latest on a local restaurant shooting. It promised to be a full day at the ABC affiliate.

But only Christine knew that the biggest news of the day – broadcast news history – would be made right inside the studio.

After pleading with her superiors to atypically read a newscast from the anchor’s desk, Chubbuck was given permission to preface her show with five minutes at the helm. For three and a half unremarkable minutes, she read. National story. National story. Local shooting. Then, the film jammed. Unperturbed, she played it off like a pro, like she knew exactly what she was doing. Looking back, no one knew just how much she knew exactly what she was doing. Her next words were her last.

“In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide.”

Chubbuck pressed a revolver behind her right earlobe and pulled the trigger. Fourteen hours later she was gone, her death coming with the kind of national attention she spent so many years dreaming of. Working towards.

Forty-two years after the fact, director Antonio Campos has put Christine’s story to screen, attempting to redefine a woman most often defined by the way she died; to give life to a life cut hopelessly short. Building a movie around a real-life suicide might have come off as, at best, thankless, and, at worst, exploitative. But aided by an emotionally adept screenplay from first-timer Craig Shilowich and an immensely moving performance from British actress Rebecca Hall (“The Prestige”), Campos has succeeded. Wildly. He’s made an intense, layered film that knows it can’t answer its many questions, but asks them anyway.

Shilowich’s script chronicles the final weeks of Chubbuck’s life, smartly alluding to troubling events from her past without getting explicit. It’s an approach lends an initial air of mystery to the smoky newsroom where her erratic behavior and dogged idealism frequently alienate her co-workers, to the cottage she uncomfortably shares with her hippie mother. What’s immediately clear is that Christine’s sense of self is overwhelmed by her perceived failings. She agonizes over WXLT’s move toward sensationalism, regularly sparring with news director Mike Simmons (actor and playwright Tracy Letts). In a time when television was wholly a man’s game, she looked to turn the tide singlehandedly. When she inevitably couldn’t, she blamed herself.

Her non-existent love life comes as even heavier burden. Undeniable smarts and sex appeal belie the fact that Ms. Chubbuck is an almost 30-year-old virgin with limited social skills and an inability to communicate her interest in any man – let alone hot-to-trot co-worker and lead anchor George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall). His eventual dismissal of her as a romantic prospect – in such an unknowingly cruel way – isn’t just what ignites Chubbuck’s final desperate act; it’s her life in a nutshell. In so many ways Christine kept drawing life’s short straw, and the many people that might have helped her, didn’t.

But these misfortunes are just that. The liquid black core of depression and, possibly, undiagnosed bi-polar disorder, are the story’s real villains. And Hall does an exquisite job of bringing Christine and her silent killer to life. The actress pings between sadness and all-consuming grief with the ability of the top-tier actress we hadn’t realized she was. Suddenly, a performer who’s always been a bright spot is an eclipse, crossing arduous emotional terrain with ease and finding moments of dignity and grace in mental illness.

The scenes in which Christine uses her free time to perform puppet shows for developmentally disabled children are among the most gut wrenching the picture has to offer. Campos and Hall use them to exact the goodness in their protagonist that her fate has long overshadowed, showing Christine go out of her way to help those in need when no one thought to do the same for her. Hall is so uncannily good in these scenes, so vulnerable that movie begins to feel like a documentary. The feeling never quite goes away.

Despite memorable support from Tracy Letts and Michael C. Hall, Maria Dizzia (“While We’re Young”) is the cog in the supporting cast. As Jean, one of Christine’s co-workers and only friends, she is our analog, quietly and regretfully representing the ignorance towards mental health that ran rampant in the 1970s and persists today. It’s a small role but Dizzia is terrific in it and Campos’ use of her to close the film serves as a tender callback to an earlier conversation between her and Christine. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Unsurprisingly, this all makes for an unusually tough watch. Beyond seeing a woman eaten alive by mental illness, the film becomes even sadder in its realization that Christine’s marginalization extended far beyond the workplace. But because of Hall’s beautiful, empathetic performance and a wonderful screenwriting debut, the movie is more than sad. It’s also resolutely alive and even occasionally funny, finding relatable moments in the blackest of circumstances.

What audiences take away from the movie’s re-enactment of Chubbuck’s suicide (the only known copy of the actual footage is under lock and key) will depend on each individual viewer, but the journey there is undeniably poignant and sobering. Depression and suicide remain uneasy topics of conversation for many. Perhaps this version of Christine’s story will continue to nudge the discussion towards the mainstream. Antonio Campos and company have made a most important, startling line of conversation.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: October 14, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: The Orchard
Director: Antonio Campos
Screenwriter: Craig Shilowich
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia
MPAA Rating: R (for a scene of disturbing violence and for language including some sexual references)