“Life is hard enough without dwelling on every little thing,” a Sarasota news station owner tells an enterprising anchor in Antonio Campos’ biopic, Christine. No doubt, that’s a good perspective to have. The trouble is that he’s saying it to a woman who can’t help but dwell on every little thing. Her name is Christine Chubbuck, and in July 1974, she shot herself in the head on air.
Christine (Rebecca Hall) is introduced conducting a practice interview with Richard Nixon. She asks her baffled friend and camerawoman, Jean (Maria Dizzia), “Do I smile too sympathetically?” She also studies her tapes, freezing on moments that she believes are amateur moves, and needles co-workers for feedback. Precision rules Christine’s life; she the type of person who responds, “That’s not math, it’s logic,” when someone unthinkingly rattles off the cliche, “Do the math.”
Campos and first-time scripter Craig Shilowich effectively chronicle the parade of defeats that led 30-year-old Christine to that ultimately fatal moment. What’s missing from the narrative, however, is any but the most fleeting references to what made her happy—which would have given more depth to the disappointing turn in her career. The filmmakers literally have the character tell, not show, what drives her; reporting positive human-interest stories is “the work I love,” she says to a stranger in a therapy group she was swindled into attending.
Thus Christine’s beat isn’t clearly established when the station manager, Mike (Tracy Letts), informs the anchors that the higher-ups want them to go all Nightcrawler: “If it bleeds, it leads,” Mike emphasizes. Christine resists the change, but it’s not long before she’s buying a police scanner and dragging Jean to incidents in the middle of the night. Even this tack she wants to perfect, talking to the local police chief and saying, “People are really listening to me, so I need to make sure that I’m really saying something.”
Christine may act like a powerhouse at work—albeit a cold, pouty one—but she’s different when she goes home: She lives with her mother (J. Smith Cameron) and instantly becomes a sullen teenager when she walks in the door. It’s here that we discover that Christine has struggled with depression in the past and that everyday letdowns that most people can weather, such as the station’s policy change or a seemingly unrequited crush on a fellow anchor (Michael C. Hall), for her trigger an episode.
Rebecca Hall’s performance, as magnetic as a car crash, lifts the film above any script quibbles. Her Christine is aggressive, yet she stands hunched. There’s nearly always a grimace on her face, and she’s quick to shut down anybody’s attempt to reach out to her. Hall’s look and disposition is the embodiment of someone feeling the figurative weight of the world on her shoulders. Christine’s awkwardness while interacting with people she doesn’t know is palpable, as is her steady sinking and desperation for something, anything, good to happen. Her sadness even comes through the puppet shows she performs at the children’s hospital where she volunteers. To watch is agonizing, and viewers who have experienced mental illness will know that Hall nails it.
Of course, there’s also the tension the audience members will feel because they know what’s coming. A word to the squeamish: Campos doesn’t sugarcoat it. None of Christine, in fact, is wrapped in sweetness—it’s all medicine. But its ability to grip you with its sadness and mourning offers something better: one woman’s truth.
Christine opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center.