On July 15th, 1974, Sarasota local news reporter Christine Chubbuck shot and killed herself live on television. She had a history of depression, and she’d reportedly been bickering with her boss for months about broadcast journalism’s increasing “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. This was the era of Vietnam and Watergate, and a time when the new, more mobile video cameras were capturing robberies, fires, and hijackings as they happened. So right before she raised the gun to just behind her ear and pulled the trigger, Chubbuck looked down at the specially prepared copy that she’d typed up and read, “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.”
Just about anybody watching director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich’s “Christine” should know ahead of time that the entire film is building up to that moment. It’s not a shocking twist; it’s what “Christine” is about. It’s why Campos and Shilowhich made the movie in the first place. And as the big moment approaches, and the dread creeps up, it’d be entirely reasonable for any viewer to ask, “Why exactly am I watching this?”
There are a couple of reasons, actually. Here’s a big one: Rebecca Hall. As Chubbuck, Hall gives a performance that’s half impression, half possession. She speaks in a deep, monotone voice, and walks and moves gracelessly. Her Christine studies tape of herself, and thinks analytically about what might make her seem warmer and more human to the audience at home. And when she’s back in the beach-adjacent duplex that she shares with her mother (played by J. Smith-Cameron), Christine frequently becomes emotionally distraught, anxious over her persistent stomach pains and over the way that her mom has such a rich romantic and personal life — while she can’t even work up the nerve to ask her co-anchor George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall) out for coffee.
That’s another reason to see “Christine”: to appreciate how well Campos and Shilowich recreate the whole “I’m OK, You’re OK” vibe of the ’70s. The movie includes some fascinating detail about local TV during the decade when video replaced film, and when station managers started favoring surface attractiveness over journalistic chops. It also captures how a wave of self-help books and “if it feels good, do it” platitudes led to some socially awkward people becoming even more alienated from the culture at large. In “Christine,” Chubbuck is respected by her peers, with the notable exception of her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), a chauvinist who thinks she’s too smart for her own good. And she’s a valuable member of the community, doing in-depth reports on zoning disputes and putting on puppet shows for disabled kids. But as depicted here, Christine doesn’t really have friends — just obligations.
The main justification for “Christine” to exist though is that it’s just a masterful piece of filmmaking. In Campos’ first two features, 2008’s “Afterschool” and 2012’s “Simon Killer,” he helped establish the visual immediacy and sonic texture that’s become a hallmark of the Borderline Films collective that he shares with Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Josh Mond (“James White”). With “Christine,” Campos applies that style to a movie that — grim subject matter aside — is actually fairly mainstream. He shoots Shilowich’s script cleanly and clearly, balancing biographical/ethnographic detail with the kind of intense focus on one character’s psychology that has been his trademark.
And yes, that includes the way that Campos stages and films the tragic incident at the heart of the story. That moment wouldn’t be as effective as it is — leaving viewers sweaty-palmed and queasy — if the director didn’t have such control over the material. Is “Christine” voyeuristic, or even exploitative? Very possibly. But it’s also vivid, intense, and artful.
More importantly, thanks to Hall, Shilowich, and Campos, the life and times of an unfortunately infamous person now comes into sharper focus. “Christine” doesn’t glorify suicide, but it does explain what pushed one woman over the edge, and it honors who she was before it happened. If nothing else, just about anyone who makes it all the way to the end of this movie will know a lot more about Christine Chubbuck than the morbid facts of how she died. [B+]