‘Christine’ Shows the Struggle for Female Achievement

With an awards-worthy performance by Rebecca Hall, Christine is the haunting story of one woman’s drive for excellence and respect.

Television reporter Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide in 1974 is said to have inspired Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 drama Network. Antonio Campos’ Christine is one of two Chubbuck-based films out this year, along with the documentary-esque Kate Plays Christine. Campos’ film is a clinging, yearning look at one woman’s mad desire for acceptance. Its roots in sensationalistic news media that couldn’t be timelier.

Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a field reporter for a small Sarasota-based news organization. Her inability to socialize and connect leaves her at odds with her boss, friends and family. Desperate to make her mark, Christine is compelled to leave an impression however she can.

Chubbuck’s on-air suicide has fascinated me, and countless other gorehounds, for years. Maybe its the fact that recorded evidence of the death exists out of public view which keeps attention glued to it. Chubbuck’s legacy has its own bittersweet irony. Her desperate wish for a lasting impact is now realized through people hunting for video of her final moments.

Image courtesy of The Orchard

Director Antonio Campos creates a sensitive portrayal of Chubbuck’s life and death. People are so eager to rush to the end that it’s easy to overlook the person behind the tragedy. Campos maintains a strong hand in anchoring the woman’s life around the people she knew and the good work she did. Campos carves out time for Chubbuck’s regularly performed puppet-shows for disabled children, a philanthropic form of therapy for her. Oblique references to a past incident in Boston are brought up when others notice her depression and anxiety. Despite the well-known conclusion, the narrative never runs to embrace it.

Without a consummate professional like Rebeccal Hall, Christine threatens to veer into Lifetime movie territority. Hall is unforgettable as Christine, turning a shadowy figure predominately discovered through the ink written in the aftermath of her demise, into a substantial figure. Her loping gait and hangdog expression depict a woman who puts the weight of her world on her shoulders. She feels everything so intensely, alternately demanding affection and pushing others away. Her relationship with Michael C. Hall’s George, the news station’s anchorman, is as awkward as it is darling. Hall gives George swagger and a charm so effortless he doesn’t understand how a vulnerable woman like Chubbuck holds onto his fascination with her. Their one attempt at a date – a date in Christine’s mind, at least – leads to a therapy session with George none the wiser for his faux pas.

Screenwriter Craig Shilowich’s exploration of a depressive personality presents Chubbuck in a multitude of moods: manic, selfish, mean and manipulative, but always with sympathy. As she becomes more and more unhinged, she becomes quieter, more interior. Her final puppet show performance, asking if it’s okay to be quiet, is painful in its authenticity. Her neediness causes her to latch onto others like a leech, criticizing her mother for daring to have a life outside the house. Chubbuck’s depression doesn’t help an already stunted social anxiety, and it is through her support system that the audience remains committed to her.

Maria Dizzia as Jean wants the best for her friend, though it comes at the expense of suppressing her own desires for job achievement. Her final scene, singing along to the Mary Tyler Moore theme song, leaves things on an ironic note: We’re all Christine Chubbuck in our drive for success; it’s only through being able to shake off the bad and realize “you’re gonna make it after all” that we’re okay.  Chubbuck’s mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron) worries about her child, and her fears are well-founded and heartbreaking. The look on her face as she watches her daughter’s final moments are utterly devastating.

The “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra remains an indelible phrase for nightly news, most expertly analyzed in Nightcrawler. Christine is really a film about the perils of female ambition, and the “right” way to go about it. Chubbuck wants her boss – an abrasive Tracy Letts – to take her seriously, but is rebuffed at every turn. This is partly due to Chubbuck’s relentless pleading, and when that doesn’t work insults. Those who knew the real Chubbuck maintain her disintegration started when the network demanded flashy stories, where the Network comparisons started from. Chubbuck doesn’t fit the mold – she doesn’t wear makeup, wears the wrong clothes, etc. Her continual debasement and lack of self-esteem only enhances her tailspin. Asking whether she’d be treated the same way if she were a man is valid.

Painful and affecting, Christine packs as much of an impact in narrative form as the original story does. Rebecca Hall’s performance reclaims Chubbuck’s life away from her terrible demise to showcase the tormented woman within.