Two facts about Antonio Campos’ Christine will be repeated ad nausem in its myriad of reviews, yet they’re important to frame the film both historically and culturally. The first is that it’s based on the real life and actions of Christine Chubbuck at a Florida news station in 1974.
The second is that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky used Chubbuck as partial inspiration for his unhinged and morally vigilant Howard Beale character (played to Oscar winning perfection by Peter Finch) in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). Beale is a bold pop culture imprint whose tagline of “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” not only became the rallying cry of people fed up with the empty spectacle of the media, but its David versus Goliath reverberations of general life in 1970’s New York. Needless to say, in a long line of great writing by Chayefsky, it may be his most prominent vestige to the silver screen.
Knowing all that, Christine cuts through those facts and tries to explore the person of Christine Chubbuck in an honest and illuminating way, which falls to the heady and capable hands of Rebecca Hall. She gives her own Oscar worthy performance as Chubbuck. Having in mind the few clips I’ve seen of Chubbuck, Hall manages to incorporate both the physical with the internal in her portrayal. The way she ruffles her chin, causing it to almost disappear as she speaks or the manner in which she uses her body to lean in and direct her interview style through her lean shoulders and pencil-thin arms carry a sense of understanding that far outweighs sheer mimicry.
The internal part of her life is a little more muffled and harder to convey. When we first meet Chubbuck, her journalist life at WXLT in Florida consists of menial human interest pieces that fail to deliver the pungent aspects she wishes from more important stories. Her job becomes even more miserable as she’s constantly passed over for promotions or barely given the time of day by her boss (a wonderfully brisk Tracy Letts). And, to compound the sadness, her personal life is just as incomplete as her professional.
Living with her mother (J. Smith Cameron) and trying to fight off the slow creeping intimations of depression that have been hinted at in her past, Christine presents its main character as a melting pot of failures, insecurities and unrealized dreams. Of course, this type of somber character study wouldn’t be complete without a dash of romantic alienation as well. Main anchor George (Michael C. Hall) shows signs of interest in Christine, but their first ‘date’ ends up in a weird and almost comical situation of misunderstanding.
This is a lot to process, and to its detriment, director Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich attempt to cram way too much identifying material into the film in order to decidedly exorcise why she eventually did what she did. It’s overkill at times, but held together by the supremely focused performance of Hall.
Despite those warning signs, there are moments of joy in Christine’s life. Her camerawoman and friend Jean (Maria Dizzia) allows some intimate moments of friendship, even if their relationship sours alongside Christine’s decline in personality. And Christine gets to deliver a couple of op-ed local pieces that suit her regional bent moreso than the oncoming corporate mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads.” If nothing else, these small triumphs say more about the changing climate of television in the 70’s than they do about Christine herself.
In his previous films, Campos has tackled similar themes of alienation and eventual tragedy with an almost clinical approach. Afterschool (2007), about a young student who records a horrible act and the concurrent non-effect it has on his environment, and Simon Killer (2008), which deals with a handsome American abroad in France with way too much spoiled time on his hands, are certainly acquired tastes. Formally stringent and devoid of most emotion, they and Christine capture a triumvirate of rottenness behind the everyday curtains of life. This style may not appeal to everyone, but it works in providing a dissonant voice to the melodramatic and show-me-everything way of telling some stories.
And despite its scattershot philosophizing as mentioned earlier, perhaps everything we need to know about Chubbuck and her eventual outcome in life is presented in the opening scene. Recording herself on the large camera mounted just off-stage, Christine pretends to be interviewing someone, honing her voice and interview style before she’s interrupted by Jean. Quickly deferring her embarrassment, Christine instead points out that the vase of flowers on the table next to her are fake, asking if anyone has ever noticed this. Sometimes, it takes a rare and sensitive person to recognize the artificiality in things, and then it’s a constant struggle not to paint everything with that same lens.
Christine opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, November 4 at the Angelika Dallas and Plano locations.