Not one, but two films about Christine Chubbuck—a news reporter from Sarasota who killed herself live on national television on July 15th, 1974—were released theatrically this year. Part of the brilliance of Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene’s documentary about the actress Kate Lyn Sheil trying to play the character of Christine for a fake film, is that it never tried to dive too much into telling us who Chubbuck was. It merely tried to show us a woman understanding her. With Christine, Antonio Campos’ period drama that covers a portion of Chubbuck’s life, we get something similar in performance, but entirely different in execution. Rebecca Hall, who plays the titular character, delivers a marvelous performance, similarly dedicated to understanding her character, a woman who we ultimately know so little about.
And that’s what Christine does so interestingly: fill in the gaps of Christine Chubbuck’s life without betraying the woman she seemed to be. Director Campos, actress Hall, and writer Craig Shilowich all seem to have a grasp of the basics: Chubbuck was a [never diagnosed] mentally ill woman who was immensely passionate about her career to the point of coming across as standoffish and self-important to those she worked with. Shilowich’s script matched with Campos’ strong direction (and the film’s impeccable production design, costuming and art direction) nails the atmosphere of a small news production set and office. Where a work like Spotlight focused on scripting every beat of an investigation and lacked in direction when it came to the inner workings of the news scene (in this case paper, rather than video here), Campos plays to his strengths, really buying us in the often tense newsroom environment that played a large part in driving Chubbuck into doing what she did. The script thankfully also doesn’t care for heavy-handed monologues a la Aaron Sorkin, but allows supporting players like Maria Dizzia and Tracy Letts to be treated as fleshed out human beings who contribute both positively and negatively to Chubbuck’s experience in Sarasota.
If there’s any complaint to be had about the film, it’s that the script occasionally presumes to know too much about Chubbuck for her own good. It’s understandable that, as a fictional film about an individual without much of a documented past, there are blanks to be filled, but it’s when the script indulges in Chubbuck as a little too lovestruck by a coworker, George Peter Ryan (charmingly played by Michael C. Hall), that it feels like someone grasping too far. This is something that Antonio Campos and the talented Hall—finally getting her due after her fair share of thankless roles with a performance that appropriately nails how strange Chubbuck could come across while never playing up her ticks for laughs as many films about mentally ill characters do—mostly know how to work around. They make other, smaller scenes, pop in amazing ways; Chubbuck approaching a couple at a restaurant, Chubbuck listening to a police scanner, Chubbuck uncomfortably attempting therapy, and the build up to the climactic moment works beautifully.
Many can and will argue that the remainder of the runtime past her suicide feels unnecessary, only serving to hammer in a certain cynicism about whether or not Christine Chubbuck’s live suicide mattered in the long run, and it’s a fair critique, but it’s something that ultimately lends a heartbreaking tone to the entire feature. By painting her as more than a “difficult woman” who killed herself and depicting her without judgement, Christine becomes more than a glimpse into Christine Chubbuck’s life. It becomes an engaging and melancholy character study of a woman who had to suffer silently, one that rather harshly critiques the sexist culture she was borne into and the self-involved culture that saw it fit to simply move on after her to the next bit of “blood and guts.”
Directed by Antonio Campos; written by Craig Shilowich; starring Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia; 115 minutes.
Christine premieres in Miami on Friday, October 14th, as part of Miami Film Festival’s GEMS series. It also opens at O Cinema Miami Beach, Coral Gables Art Cinema & Regal SoBe on November 18th.