If it bleeds, it leads.
Even in 1974, this mantra was uttered by local network affiliate managers across the U.S.A. who found that sensational crime stories - the grislier the better - got the Arbitron numbers. When did integrity in T.V. news journalism die? When someone discovered that most viewers harbored bloodlust? Had zero attention spans? When the advertisers followed suit? Where does this environment leave a serious field reporter like Christine Chubbuck?
Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) works at a Sarasota, FL station doing human interest stories about strawberry farmers and chicken coop wranglers. She desires promotion, to do real investigative reporting and perhaps sit behind the anchor desk. Advance to a major market. She's ballsy and ambitious, frequently locking horns with her boss Michael (Tracy Letts) over the content and style of her work. He's blatant in his desire for more violent, crime laden leads. After getting a tip from a police scanner she obtains, Christine interviews the victim of a fire, but keeps the camera fixed on his face. Michael wonders why she didn't get some shots of the wreckage and flames.
Last year's CHRISTINE, a biography of the real life Miss Chubbuck's existence in and out of work, has much to say about the state of television news, though nothing you haven't seen already in NETWORK and BROADCAST NEWS. But this is more than just another bitter corporate satire; this is a study of the last days of a severely troubled young woman. A woman wracked by an unspeakable depression that lead her to take her own life. Right on the air, during her big opportunity, finally reading the top of the broadcast lead stories on WXLT. A gun behind her right ear. A supremely grim bit of irony, of her ability to finally give viewers the blood and guts they crave. You can look it up.
Paddy Chayefsky, author of NETWORK, apparently did, reportedly inspired by the story for his screenplay. You can see a bit of Howard Beale's mania in Chubbuck. A crazily frustrated fist shake at the media in which she slaves, a recognizance of increasingly banal standards for television news. All of this would be hypertensive enough, but Christine suffers a private hell stoked by her inability to relate to others in a healthy fashion. She dismisses compliments, lashes out at those trying to be her friend or confidant, including her mother, with whom she shares a small apartment.
Christine's room in the apartment, filled with pictures of rainbows and juvenile artifacts, is evidence of her psyche, resembling a gangly, grossly insecure teenager who, emotionally at least, never found her way to adulthood. She is humiliated by her virginity, then devastated when she learns she will lose an ovary, practically ensuring she will never have children. Is her volunteer work as a puppeteer at home for handicapped children a form of therapy in this regard? An outlet for her yearning for motherhood, love? Her unrequited crush on anchor George (Michael C. Hall) quietly erodes her confidence, but one night he invites her to dinner....
But we know how this story will end. Is CHRISTINE merely a grim death march? Two hours of time marking before the big moment? Sylvia Plath in the newsroom? Director Antonio Campos brings the drab surroundings of 1970s Florida to life without ostentatiousness, allowing snippets of the impending impeachment of Nixon as background to another tragedy. Craig Shilowich's screenplay changes some details of Chubbuck's story (leaving out, curiously, an interview with a policeman about how one would commit suicide), but what's there is always integral to this character study. It's unavoidable that every event in this movie is colored by our knowing the outcome (with some effective small moments of foreshadowing), but that just makes the whole thing more powerful.
And Rebecca Hall is simply great. I kept wondering if she made Christine more interesting than she really was, or was just amazingly skilled at fleshing out a shell of a woman. That's at least how she might've appeared to others. There in fact was a deep well within.
And dammit, Hall should have been Oscar nominated. I haven't been as knocked out by a performance in some time. She really disappears into the role, embodying the look, posture, and voice of a driven but stunted unfortunate who is filled with self-loathing but is perhaps confused by it and powerless to reign it in. Prone to rage but then just as capable of falling into a ball and allowing a hug to comfort her. My descriptions sound like pop psychology but Hall's performance does not reek of it. She's quite incredible. I don't often cry during movies but this one got to me, and it's all because of the performance, which allows us, before and after she's gone, to deeply ponder a short and tormented life.
To put a fine point on it, there's that quiet, unbearably sad last scene with Jean (Maria Dizzia), Christine's co-worker, a camera operator at the station. A woman who unsuccessfully tried to reach out to her and was even perceived as a threat. Jean has just edited a montage of news clips for Chubbuck's funeral and returned home. She flips on the television. She sings along to the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Maybe ironic in its use. Christine Chubbuck didn't make it after all.