Events leading to journalist Christine Chubbuck’s 1974 on-air suicide are recounted in Christine (2016), a bleak but potent film written by Craig Shilowich and directed by Antonio Campos. Strong performances by its lead actors and its visual authenticity make Christine the best overlooked film of 2016.
Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a sincere but troubled woman working as a reporter for a local news station in Sarasota, Florida. She lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), and performs puppet shows at a children’s hospital on the weekends. Her life begins to spiral out of control when, approaching 30, she discovers she has a cyst on one of her ovaries and may never have children.
Her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), is concerned about falling ratings and wants Christine to cover more sensational stories. This professional dilemma is compounded by the arrival of station owner Bob Andersen (John Cullum), who wants to move some personnel to Baltimore. Christine is passed over in favor of anchor George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall) and sports anchor Andrea Kirby (Kim Shaw). This is a double-blow because Christine had an unrequited crush on George.
I won’t reveal how the film ends, but you probably already guessed. Rebecca Hall, who also starred in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) and The Dinner (2017), is outstanding as Christine Chubbuck, and won several awards for her effort. I’m not sure this film would have been nearly as good without her performance. She disappeared into the role, bringing her character to life with all the emotion and idiosyncrasies of a real person.
This film’s authenticity is also incredible. If you could somehow capture the look and feel of a decade, Christine does it. 1970s period pieces usually feature larger than life characters and situations. This film does the exact opposite–it shows normal people at a normal job, who happened to be involved in an incredibly tragic incident.
But Christine is not entirely accurate. The film depicts Christine living with her mother, which was true, but her older brother also lived with them. I can’t recall any mention of her siblings in the film. Also, in the film, Christine procrastinates getting a cyst removed from her ovary, but in real life she had the surgery a year prior to her suicide. Neither of these alterations negatively affect the film. The filmmakers needed to show how the surgery affected her in the run-up to her suicide, which would have been difficult if it occurred months before the events depicted in the movie.
Christine confronts an issue in journalism that continues to be debated to this day. In the film, Christine is constantly butting heads with her boss over the definition of news. Michael is concerned about their station’s low ratings and wants her to focus on more controversial stories. Christine doesn’t think reporting on stories that interest people is real journalism.
The push to report on crime and disaster deeply conflicts with Christine’s self-image, and she frames her suicide as a statement against sensationalism in news. “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,” she says before she pulls a pistol and shoots herself behind her right ear.
The message couldn’t be any clearer, but don’t expect Christine to spoon-feed you answers. The movie is like a snapshot of one moment in time. We don’t know how Christine’s family and coworkers deal with the tragedy, or whether it affects that station’s approach to the news. Its open-endedness enhances the film’s final impact.