My notes on the biopic Christine, which stars Rebecca Hall.
In 1974, twenty-nine-year-old Christine Chubbock, a news reporter on a small TV station in Sarasota, took the opportunity of a rare in-studio, at-the-table appearance (she was usually out in the field)) to pull out a gun, announce ‘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’and shot herself in the head. The obit that follows ups her age to thirty. Similar incidents are recycled in Killing of America-type mondo docs, but– though Chubbock took steps to make sure the broadcast was video-taped (not standard practice then or, perhaps surprisingly, even now) – her family successfully obtained the footage and ensured it’s not in the public domain. In pop culture, the incident fed into Network – and Chubbock’s speech suggested that she was at least partially motivated by what she saw as the coarsening of TV news – but this biopic also presents a disturbing, weird flipside to the bro-flavoured nostalgia of Anchorman, looking back at an era when an argument could be squashed with ‘you know what your trouble is – you’re a feminist’ (actually, that could well be making a comeback) and TV was a male-dominated enclave which only allowed women to be mumsy or bubbly.
In a pitch-perfect, understated final scene (which – by bizarre coincidence – parallels the last shot of Alan Clarke’s entirely-unrelated 1986 TV film of the same title), Christine’s best friend, camerawoman/editor Jean (Maria Dizzia), eats ice cream in the dark while the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show plays, presenting the tragic suicide as a realworld analogue of TV drone Mary on the show. But the film also raises the probability that Christine is just too troubled – difficult, inconsistent, given to tantrums, inept at office politics, liable to turn on anyone close – to get far in any business (or relationship), let alone one which depends on presentation and at least the appearance of empathy. Director Antonio Campos made the striking Simon Killer, an intense portrait of an American sociopath in Paris, and doesn’t hold back on uncomfortable psychology here, even if producer Craig Sholowich’s script is sometimes too on-the-nose. The understated 70s backdrop is not played for anything like nostalgia – there’s a bubbling-under Watergate paranoia, with Ford pardoning Nixon, but that issue has had an effect on the ambitions of these dead-ended journos as Christine is introduced taping herself as if she had an exclusive interview with Nixon and Jean muttering about Woodward and Bernstein as they trace a trivial story.
The main draw of the film is Rebecca Hall’s astonishing, performance – without changing her appearance much, she transforms into an awkward, dynamic, self-defeating figure (her body language is as perfectly-caught as the accent). Besides career frustrations, Christine had an ovarian cyst which she worried would end her ability to have children – though she was also a virgin … she lived with her hippie-ish mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), always pushing her away and vaguely disgusted by her sex life … she, along with the whole industry, had trouble keeping up with the introduction of video as opposed to film cameras … and had other, untreated mental issues with a breakdown in Boston as preface to her winding up on a news show in a catchment area with no news to report. She has a crush on anchor George (Michael C. Hall), who eventually asks her out and opens up about his own worries – just when we assume he’s about to pounce on her sexually, he takes her to an EST-style consciousness-raising seminar where her responses to the positivity game of ‘yes, but’ are hideously honest and bum out even the blissy instructress. When she takes the initiative and listens to a police scanner to catch scoops, she just tunes into bored patrolmen gossiping, bragging about sex and expressing a self-hatred that mirrors her own. She antagonises yet tries to get round her paternal boss (Tracy Letts) and even the aged businessman (John Cullum) who owns the station – hinting at unexplored father issues. And, extraordinarily, she works out her own worries by performing with a couple of hand-puppets at a children’s hospital (later, she hides her gun inside one of the puppets). If there’s a pressing reason to tell yet another woman-cracks-up story, it’s Hall’s performance here – she’s among the most gifted screen actresses of her generation and this is possibly her strongest role yet, and certainly the film that relies most on her presence.
NB: in that weird way that some film subjects arrive in pairs – two Capote biopics, two Florence Foster Jenkins films – this comes along after the metafictional documentary on the same subject, Kate Plays Christine.