Starring: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, John Cullum, Timothy Simons, Kim Shaw
Running Time: 119 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
"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."
On the morning of July 15, 1974, Florida news reporter Christine Chubbuck drove into work at WXLT-TV studios in Sarasota ready to try something she's never done before: Lead off from the anchor's desk. Only the film reel of the story jammed and, eerily composed, she looked into the camera and read that statement above. Then she took out a gun, put it up to her head and pulled the trigger, committing the first on-air suicide. The fact that she described what she was about to do as "attempted" reveals a lot, and much of it is corroborated in Antonio Campos' Christine, one of two 2016 films about this woman and the shocking, tragic circumstances surrounding her death over forty years ago. It also brings to the forefront a debate about the extent of a filmmmakers' moral responsibility when handling controversial, sensitive material based on true events. And, like it or not, there's always a certain level of responsibility.
Ironically, this film, closer to what we'd consider a straightforward biopic in how it dramatizes the final weeks and days leading up to the suicide, shows more compassion toward its real-life subject than the "documentary thriller" also released this year on the story, Kate Plays Christine. In that, an actress prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, dragging along with her all the psychological baggage it entails. But what it's really about is a director being swallowed up by his own meta gimmick, going to almost extraordinary lengths to avoid telling us the story Campos does with such empathy here. We don't go to movies to see filmmakers work through their guilt over tackling potentially tasteless or controversial subjects. Any subject is tasteless if handled wrong, so if you don't want to make it, then don't. And if you do, you've certainly lost the right to wag your finger at audiences and reprimand them for watching it.
We're not, as that other film implies, a bunch of bloodthirsty animals clamoring for a dramatic recreation of this woman shooting herself on live TV. And Campos knows we're better than that. He knows that while most care about the whereabouts the infamous tape of the event, few aside from callous "death hags" would actually be interested in viewing it. And while he knows it may be the circumstances of her gruesome end that initially draws us in, his film is full of faith that we're far more interested in exploring how and why this happened.
When dealing with a touchy, sensitive subject, Christine proves it's sometimes best not to dance around the issue and just do it. Those thinking it's exploitive will have that reaction regardless of how it's presented, so the only defense is to make a great film that finds the humanity in its subject and hope the rest of the cards fall into place. For Campos they do, and its the highest compliment to his direction and Rebecca Hall's Oscar-worthy performance as the title character, that before the film enters its dreaded final act, I momentarily forgot how it would end. I was so invested in this woman's struggle to fit in and function under the stress of mental illness, that I thought maybe she'd somehow pull through. But the more people try to help the further she seems to fall, to the point that what eventually occurs feels like a cruel inevitability.
When it comes to the depiction of that fateful day, there's just too much at stake to do anything but step on the gas and floor it. Holding back would be a disservice to both the person and her story, which seems as relevant and important today as it must have then. Maybe more so considering there were few who knew how to react at that time, causing it to slip from the public consciousness. Only now, with what seems like the proper amount of time and distance, we have a film that treats this situation with the depth and complexity it deserves.
As the host of Florida's "Suncoast Digest,", a community affairs talk show on Sarasota's WXLT-TV newscast, reporter Christine Chubbuck (Hall) shines a light on issues affecting the region, conducting interviews with local business leaders and reporting on human interest stories that have an impact on the everyday lives of viewers. But personally and professionally, her own life is falling apart, as she rapidly approaches her 30th birthday still a virgin who hasn't been on a date in years and is struggling with depression that's only been exacerbated by news that a medical condition could prevent her from ever conceiving children. She lives with her single mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), but that relationship is strained by Christine's unpredictable mood swings and disapproval of her mom's dating habits and carefree attitude.
On-air, Christine's composed and professional, proudly wearing the label of a perfectionist who takes her job very seriously. It's a quality her friend and protégé Jean Reed (Maria Dizzia) seems to admiringly tolerate, even providing moral support during her frequent breakdowns. But when orders come down from the station manager, Mike (Tracy Letts) that the newscast is going in a sensationalistic new direction following a significant loss in viewership, Christine must readjust if she wants a shot at a potential anchor job in a bigger market. "If it Bleeds, it Leads," becomes the studio mantra as the types of positive stories covered on her segment fall by the wayside in favor of "blood and guts" TV that focuses entirely on murder and violence.
Disgusted by the station's new direction and correctly forecasting decades in advance the bleak future of television news, Christine starts to unravel. Further complicating matters is her crush on lead anchorman George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall), who takes an interest in his co-worker, only to be frustrated by her frequently standoffish behavior. As she reaches her inevitable breaking point, there are signs that someone or something can intervene and stop what's going to happen. And it's then that we're coldly reminded that this is 1974 and she's not only a driven woman, but one suffering from undiagnosed bi-polar depression and working in a male-dominated industry. Despite everyone's best intentions, the help she really needs can't possibly arrive in time.
Of course, the running joke bubbling just underneath the surface of a film that does have kind of a dark, bleak sense of humor about itself, is that if Christine was this disturbed by state of television news in 1974, she probably would have torched the studio if she saw what was going on today. In that sense, maybe we should be grateful this happened THEN, but you have to believe the fact that she was caught on cusp of this jarring media transition at the time played a major role in what occurred. Though an argument can also be made that tragic acts like this have actually been happening ever since, only in a different form, and often taking on the shape of the news stories Chubbuck so vehemently resisted reporting on. But Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich know better than to conveniently put the blame on the media when this woman wrestled with so many other problems that eventually led her down this hopeless path.
When we first meet Christine, she's talking to an empty chair on set, fake interviewing President Nixon about Watergate. This is the level of ambition she has, even as her talent rarely seems to match it. On camera, she often appears stilted and unnatural, and while acknowledging the tireless work ethic she demonstrates to be the best in her field, there's still something's missing in the presentation. It's almost as if her obsessive professionalism prevents her from ever truly being comfortable on-air or radiating enough charisma to ascend to the pinnacle of her chosen profession. And unfortunately, anything less would be a failure too painful for Christine to possibly endure. Sadder still is that through aboout 80 percent of the film we're exposed to someone who, despite her mental health issues, is a great person who cares deeply about other people and her community. A woman who spends her free time putting on puppet shows for sick children in the hospital. And at times we maybe wonder if she cares too deeply, as we watch her overly idealistic view of the world get slowly shattered over the course of two hours.
While she has this self-deprecating sense of humor that's obviously masking more serious issues, Christine's more often than not a likable presence who seems, on the surface, to have all her ducks in a row. Therein lies the genius of Rebecca Hall's performance, which suggests from the onset that something's off. It's scary how from the very few clips available of the real person, Hall seems to nail Chubbuck's physical mannerisms, from the flat tone of voice to her posture. But then Hall also creates this walk when in the throes of this woman's many manic episodes, putting her head down and lumbering through the studio's hallway like a giant, arms uncontrollably thrashing to her sides as her long black hair drapes over her face. The description seems ridiculous, but onscreen the actress so subtly brings it to life, standing in stark contrast to the character's "happier" moments, where she appears not only perfectly normal, but even somewhat relaxed.
As Christine's personal problems pile up to the point that they become indistinguishable from her professional ones, it's clear she doesn't view the world like everyone else, lacking the emotional tools to successfully interact with people or cope with the roadblocks she feels are being put in front of her. Obviously, this results in many cringeworthy moments, including one late in the film with a TV executive that comes from a place so uncomfortably awkward and desperate that it's almost difficult to watch. And yet, you still kind of admire her moxie for doing it, as delusional and deceptive as it is.
Even as she pushes them away and isn't the easiest person to get along with, nearly everyone in Christine's life tries to help. In fact, you could even argue some bend over backwards, doing pretty much all they can considering the limitations of the era they're in and the complete lack of knowledge about her condition. It's this detail that prevents the film from becoming the depressing dirge or dreaded death march it could have otherwise been given the end result. Even the station's gruff, demanding manager, superbly played by go-to authoritarian Tracy Letts, tries to push her in the right direction while she frequently responds to his criticisms and suggestions like a bull in a china shop. Soon, their relationship devolves into what can best be described as the most hellish version imaginable of Mary Richards and Lou Grant's from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Christine's attempts to present "sensationalized" news stories are understandably disastrous since she just isn't wired for it, her introspective think pieces seeping through even the sleaziest stories. The best reaction shot in the film comes from her friend and co-worker Jean when Christine pitches an idea so spectacularly ill-conceived all she can do is stand there with a look of sympathy and confusion, dumbfounded at how bizarre it is. It's almost as if in that moment Jean is revealed as the only character who grasps the true extent of her friend's issues. Jean is this constant throughout, as Maria Dizzia's performance subtly surprises in how her character silently supports throughout, often without dialogue and with only a passing glance or understanding look conveying that she gets it. She knows how bad this is and wants desperately to do something. And often she does. But it just isn't enough. Upon rewatching the film, it's almost astonishing how present she is in the background, but it isn't really until the final minutes that you consciously realize her purpose.
As the unrequited recipient of Christine's affections, Michael C. Hall's slick anchorman, nicknamed "Gorgeous George," is a more polarizing character. While there are times he comes off as a dumb ex-jock who fell into this cushy anchor spot, there's no denying he's sincere and trying to reach out to her in his own kind of ridiculous way. The script cleverly leaves some doubt as to just how interested he is and creates a palpable sense of fear as to Christine's potential misreading of it. Hall takes what should be a simple role and instead chooses to plays his cards close to the vest to make it more complicated. We're never quite sure exactly what to make of the guy and neither is Christine. Unfortunately, when that eventual realization comes, it's the final blow that takes her emotionally past the point of no return.
You have to wonder how viewers with no knowledge of the incident (falsely rumored to have inspired the film Network) will react to the ending and how shocking it'll undoubtedly seem. And it's here where we see the true value of the biopic format, which has long been dismissed as a genre that just goes through the motions, frequently criticized for not telling us anything we didn't know about historical figures or deceased entertainers. Often that's true, but what about situations like this? A story about someone no one's ever heard of or forgot, its circumstances having long-term ramifications that are very much relevant to what's going on today. This is what a biopic was built for. The finale is terrifying not only because of what happens (though that's certainly terrifying enough), but everything that brings her to the tragic moment.
There's this strange sense of serenity and acceptance on her last day, as if finally taking control and making the decision to end her life has ironically provided her with the happiness she was searching for the entire film, and likely her entire life. Obviously, this was a very sick woman, falling completely in line with the standard description of most with her condition, with one glaring exception: How she does it. In the most public way possible, almost to send a message, but consistent with this intensely private woman who felt trapped in the spotlight, yet craved attention. The cruel twist is that it didn't work, since the footage was buried and the incident largely forgotten for decades. Until now. It's oddly appropriate that the statement she reads would acknowledge an "attempted suicide," since, as a reporter with an uncompromising attention to detail, she wanted to accurately acknowledge the possibility she could survive. A journalist right up until the end.
This isn't a biopic in the strictest sense since as they often excise details of Christine Chubbuck's life that, while factually accurate, could clobber viewers over the head or come off potentially exploitive on screen. We don't need a scene of her discussing the best suicide methods with a police officer even if that conversation supposedly took place. Campos' choice of replacement is far quieter and unnerving, showing its subject far more respect by not engaging in the media sensationalism so crucial to the thematic narrative of this story. There's no teasing or foreshadowing, not only because it's amateurish or would have audiences ghoulishly "anticipating" the event, but because this is a character study with more important issues to delve into.
Technically, there's a real concerted effort to accurately reflect the era during which this takes place, especially considering how uniquely it informs the story. Shot by cinematographer Joe Anderson as if it were actually filmed in that decade, the painstaking extent to which we're pulled into a 1970's television newsroom, and all the baggage that accompanies the attitudes of the times (as well as the music), brings to mind how we were indoctrinated into the print worlds of All the President's Men and Zodiac, both generally of the same era. On a far smaller budget, this may not be an achievement on that level, but watching it, you'd never know.
The real tragedy here, and a question worth pondering long after fade-out, is how much of a victim Christine is of the era during which she lived. It's very revealing that early every newspaper article and TV report following the suicide described her as a "TV Hostess," language that today would be considered sexist and patronizing enough for anyone associated with those outlets to lose their jobs. It was definitely a different time and you almost also have to believe that if this happened years later, Christine would have been diagnosed as bi-polar and properly medicated. Then again, there's another voice permeating through the film that suggests otherwise. That nothing's changed. That if someone in a similar position was going through this today, we'd end up with the exact same result. If the accurately predicted sensationalism of the media has only worsened, what else has? Christine's final minutes suggest maybe the faintest glimmer of hope, a heartbreaking call-back to one of its more empathetic moments. Like the film, it serves as a reminder of how far we've come in understanding people, while bravely acknowledging that we still have a long way to go.