I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Christine didn’t become a blockbuster. I imagine that most potential viewers were turned off by the fact that 1) it wasn’t a remake of the movie about the killer car and 2) it was based on the true story of a reporter who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television. I imagine that, to many people, the film sounded like it would be indescribably sad. It certainly sounded that way to me. That’s why, when the movie opened at the Dallas Angelika, I said, “I’ll see it next week.” Of course, by the time “next week” rolled around, the movie was gone.
And that’s a shame. I just watched Christine on Netflix and I discovered that it was one of the best films of 2016. Yes, it is a sad film but it’s also a frequently fascinating one. The movie may tell the story of a tragedy but it’s anchored and enlivened by a brilliant performance from Rebecca Hall. People who love movies, of course, already know that Rebecca Hall is a brilliant actress but, unfortunately, she rarely gets the roles in the films that she deserves. As of this writing, her most financially successful film was probably The Town and, in that film, she was pretty much wasted in a nothing role. She is perfectly cast in Christine, perhaps as perfectly cast as any performer could ever hope to be.
Rebecca Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, a reporter who was based in Sarasota, Florida. In 1974, she started a newscast by announcing, “”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.” She then drew a gun from a shopping bag that was sitting behind the anchor desk. As thousands watched, she shot herself in the back of the head.
Along with the gun, the shopping bag had contained the homemade puppets that Christine used whenever she volunteered at the local children’s hospital. On the anchor desk, among her papers, was a news report that she had written the previous night, announcing that “Local news personality Christine Chubbuck” had shot herself on live television and had been taken to the hospital in critical condition. Christine, who was reportedly frustrated both personally and professionally, was briefly the number one story in the nation.
One of the more interesting things about the suicide of Christine Chubbuck is that it happened in 1974, long before YouTube, Facebook Live, or Twitter. Chubbuck’s suicide was only aired once and the footage has subsequently vanished. If Christine Chubbuck, or anyone else, committed suicide on television today, it would immediately be all over the internet. We would end up seeing, at the very least, clips of it on an almost daily basis. Sadly, we would see it so much that we would probably become desensitized to it. Since Christine Chubbuck’s death was recorded but remains unseen, both she and her suicide have achieved an almost mythical quality. One can look at the details of Christine Chubbuck’s death and see almost anything that they want.
Christine follows the last few months of Chubbuck’s life. As played by Rebecca Hall, Christine is confident enough that she can imagine interviewing Richard Nixon but insecure enough to obsess over whether she was nodding too much while the imaginary President gave his imaginary answer. She lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a self-described hippie who keeps making references to a breakdown that Christine had in Boston. When she complains about the pressure that she’s under to sensationalize the news, her boss dismisses her with “You’re a feminist!” (He says it like an accusation.) When she gives in and purchases a police scanner so that she can find the stories that the boss is demanding, she ends up spending most of her night listening to two cops brag about “how far” they got with their girlfriends the night before. When she goes to the doctor to complain about chronic stomach pain, she’s told that she has to have an ovary removed and she’ll probably never be able to conceive. When she thinks that she finally has a date with the man who she’s been crushing on, she is instead dragged to an empty-headed encounter group. Her group partner has a slick answer for every problem that Christine has until Christine says that she’s thirty and she’s still a virgin.
“Oh,” her partner replies, flummoxed.
In the film, Christine struggles with both depression and, in my opinion, bipolar disorder as well. Unfortunately, for her mental well-being, she’s a woman in 1974. The only thing that the world has to offer her are vapid self-affirmation (“I’m okay, you’re okay! I’m okay, you’re okay!” one co-worker chants at a particularly dramatic moment) and sexist bosses who dismiss what is clearly a manic episode as either “being moody” or “being difficult.” Speaking as someone who is very sensitive as to how mental health issues are portrayed onscreen, all I can say is that Christine gets it right.
I’m probably making this film sound like the most depressing movie ever made and it’s definitely not a happy film. I had tears in my eyes by the end of it. At the same time, it’s also a compulsively watchable character study. Rebecca Hall gives such a good and brave performance as Christine that you can’t look away, even when you feel like you should. Rebecca Hall is also ably supported by Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Morgan Spector, Timothy Simons, and Maria Dizzia, who all play her sometimes sympathetic, sometimes annoyed co-workers.
Now, I do think that I should warn anyone from thinking that Christine is a 100% accurate look at Christine Chubbuck’s life and death. The film left me so moved that I actually did some research and I came across this article from the Washington Post — Christine Chubbuck: 29, Good-Looking, Educated, A Television Personality. Dead. Live and in Color. After reading the profile, it was easy to see that the film did take some dramatic license. However, it was also easy to see that Christine gets the essence of the story right.
If, like me, you missed Christine in the theaters, you can now see it on Netflix. And you should!