A 'Television First' Becomes A Compelling Character Study In 'Christine'

Oct 14, 2016

The tragedy was local, yet seemed to speak to the whole of journalism: On July 15, 1974, reporter Christine Chubbuck pulled out a revolver during a live evening newscast in Sarasota Florida, and as her coworkers looking on in horror, shot herself in the head.

The what was simple, the why hard to fathom, and that's no less true in Antonio Campos' compelling retelling of the tale in his biopic Christine.

He begins with an image of Chubbuck on a TV monitor, practicing her delivery by pretending to interview Richard Nixon about Watergate. Her real gig is a bit less glamorous. She has the "community" beat at her dismally-ranked Sarasota station, and she goes at it with passion. She does three-part investigative reports about zoning disputes, spends weeks on education stories, and for flavor, turns out the occasional human interest piece, savoring, say, the first strawberry of the season.

As played hauntingly by Rebecca Hall, Christine is ambitious, eager to please, and reeeeally tightly-wound. She's not good at reading people, or at social interaction. She has a crush on the station's pleasantly empty-headed high-school-football-captain-turned-news-anchor (Michael C. Hall), for instance, but expresses it principally by avoiding him.

And she's equally out-of-step when it comes to the job itself, especially when her boss (Tracy Letts) starts championing the catchphrase "if it bleeds, it leads," as a way out of the ratings basement. It doesn't help that Christine must also deal with '70s attitudes that would try anyone's patience.

"Y'know your problem?" offers the boss when she challenges him once too often. "You're a feminist."

That said, Christine is ever ready to misinterpret, to turn away, to take offense. And increasingly, it becomes clear that she's more fragile than she's letting on. At 29, still a virgin, living with her mom (J. Smith Cameron) after an unspecified breakdown apparently prompted a move to Florida from Boston, she throws herself into work as a defense. And not surprisingly, she works herself into a lather when the station's owner (John Cullum) shows up, looking for talent to transfer to a bigger market.

A biopic about Chubbuck could have been maudlin and movie-of-the-week-ish, but Campos, working from a script by Craig Shilowich, makes much of Christine acerbic, even comic. They show the title character as a study in contradictions, performing weirdly personal puppet shows for disabled children one moment, retreating the next, to a pink bedroom with pop music posters, her mom just down the hall.

This is a woman who is depressed, unstable, and furiously acting-out. Sadly, no one sensed until it was too late, just how furiously.

Her words on her final broadcast promised that in keeping with the policy of reporting blood and guts, the station was presenting "what's believed to be a television first."

And that it was — a senseless tragedy of which the film Christine, rather impressively, makes sense.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A new movie explores a real-life tragedy caught live on camera. It happened in 1974 in Florida. A reporter shot herself in the head during a television newscast. Why? Well, critic Bob Mondello says audiences will be haunted by that question when they see the film "Christine."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Christine Chubbuck has the community beat at her dismally-ranked Sarasota station. She does three-part investigative reports about zoning and delves deeply into what's known as human interest.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRISTINE")

REBECCA HALL: (As Christine Chubbuck) Here we go, folks. This is my first robbery of the season. Yeah, it's juicy.

MONDELLO: Christine is ambitious, eager to please and really tightly wound, as played by Rebecca Hall. She's not a people person. She has a crush on the station's anchor, for instance, and expresses it by avoiding him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRISTINE")

MICHAEL C. HALL: (As George) You and I have been working together for over a year now, and we've never gone out and had a drink together.

R. HALL: (As Christine) Well, you've never asked me.

M. HALL: (As George) You're not always the most approachable person.

MONDELLO: Professionally, she's equally out-of-step, especially when her boss starts pushing to get out of the ratings basement.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRISTINE")

TRACY LETTS: (As Michael) It's a simple concept, guys. If it bleeds, it leads. There's a reason this idea is catching fire in the culture right now.

R. HALL: (As Christine) If it bleeds, it leads is not some concept, Mike. It's a catchphrase that you picked up at a conference in Cleveland last month.

LETTS: (As Michael) Chubbuck, this is not debate club.

R. HALL: (As Christine) Well, this is a joke.

MONDELLO: Sharp and abrasive, Christine is ever ready to misinterpret, to turn away, to take offense. In fairness, she's dealing with '70s attitudes that would try anyone's patience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRISTINE")

LETTS: (As Michael) You know what your problem is, Chubbuck? You're a feminist.

R. HALL: (As Christine) Oh, so you're saying that I'm not fit for a bigger market because I'm a woman?

LETTS: (As Michael) No, I'm saying that there's no respect for institutions of authority. You're the smartest person here. If you took half the energy you use to give me a hard time and just did what I'm asking...

R. HALL: (As Christine) I'm not giving you a hard time. I'm just trying to understand what you're...

LETTS: (As Michael) Just make your stories juicy.

MONDELLO: That Christine is fragile becomes increasingly clear. But while a biopic about her could have been maudlin and movie-of-the-week-ish, director Antonio Campos makes much of "Christine" acerbic, even comic, showing his title character as a study in contradictions, performing weirdly personal puppet shows for children one moment, retreating the next to a pink bedroom with pop music posters, her mom just down the hall. This is a woman who is depressed, unstable.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRISTINE")

M. HALL: (As George) And now let's kick it over to Christine Chubbuck.

R. HALL: (As Christine) Thank you, George.

MONDELLO: And she's furiously acting out, though no one senses until it's too late just how furiously.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRISTINE")

R. HALL: (As Christine) In keeping with the WZRB policy, complete reports of local blood and guts, TV 30 presents what is believed to be a television first.

MONDELLO: It certainly was that - a senseless tragedy of which the film "Christine" rather impressively makes sense. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.