Fictionalising a real-life suicide is an tricky job, primarily because the person whose tale you’re telling isn’t around to give their side of the story. On top of that, you’re making a drama with an unavoidable downer ending, you have to deal with understandably suspicious family members and friends of the deceased and, well, you’re being a bit of a vulture.
Antonio Campos’ Christine gracefully sidesteps these obstacles, presenting us with a sensitive, compelling and fantastically performed drama about a woman pushed over the edge. That woman is Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself while delivering a live news report. While her name might not be immediately familiar, the legend of the news reporter who committed suicide on air certainly is.
Set in Sarasota, Florida in 1974, we’re introduced to Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) pretending to interview President Nixon. The camera pulls back to reveal an empty chair just as an ominous wooden box marked ‘FRAGILE’ is wheeled in behind her. The following two hours get under Chubbuck’s skin, trying to explain why a smart, talented and ambitious woman would end her life in such dramatic fashion.
There is, of course, no conclusive answer. Yet, Christine does a remarkably effective bit of armchair psychiatry. For about two hours we watch Chubbuck’s life gradually disintegrate. She suffers crippling personal, physical, professional and romantic setbacks, helplessly looking on as the future she craves slips through her fingers. Prime amongst them is the classical news dilemma of balancing dry political news (Chubbuck is midway through a worthy yet incredibly dull multi-part investigation into local zoning issues) and prurient ‘if it bleeds it leads’ crime stories.
News editor Michael (Tracy Letts) constantly reminds the station staff of their shrinking ratings, screening other station’s footage of shootings and encouraging them to pursue something similar. Unfortunately, Sarasota is a sleepy, safe place with very little in the way of violent crime. Pressured by the prospect of a promotion to Baltimore, Chubbuck pulls out all the stops, desperate to find something new, sensational and extra-bloody to get audiences talking. It’s safe to say she succeeds.
It’s all underscored by the hum of Watergate, busily playing out on televisions in the background. Chubbuck regards it as a cruel joke to be relegated to reporting on strawberry festivals and chicken breeding while the epitome of high-profile, effective investigative journalism plays out without her. And so she spirals the plughole, desperately scrabbling for purchase as she’s beset by betrayal, disappointment and depression. Her final words: “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,” eventually making a sick kind of sense.
Christine is a thoroughly excellent film, underpinned by a magnificent performance from Rebecca Hall. Hall’s Chubbuck is so thoroughly three-dimensional you’d swear they’d handed out crappy plastic glasses on the way into the cinema. She creates a neat divide between the professional, snappy journalist and the disintegrating woman who weeps in her bedroom, yet both aspects tesselate perfectly, Hall making Chubbuck sympathetic, likeable and darkly fascinating all at once.
She’s aided by Joe Anderson’s quietly powerful cinematography. This is a small-scale film devoid of dramatic wide-shots that takes place in cigarette yellowed dowdy offices, yet Anderson and Campos smartly frame Hall to emphasize her gradual collapse; shooting her in silhouette, her skinny body looking weirdly ghost-like as she drifts about the frame. As Chubbuck sinks further into depression she’s increasingly shot from above, her sad eyes appearing to grow larger and larger, until they’re like pool balls rolling around in her head.
Perhaps the only real criticism is an unease with how deeply the film pries into Chubbuck’s life, mercilessly exposing her romantic disappointments, medical conditions and mental problems. Compounding that is a suspicion (one borne out by a read through Chubbuck’s Wikipedia page) that timelines and facts have been fudged for dramatic effect. Still, there’s an obvious counter-point that if Chubbuck didn’t want people to try and understand her, she wouldn’t have chosen to kill herself on live television.
When all is said and done, Christine is a fine piece of cinema, not only boasting one of the best performances of the year to date, but also tackling a difficult subject with ample empathy and intelligence.
Christine is not an easy watch, but any film that grapples with suicide shouldn't be.