The 2016 film Christine is a good movie, not a great one, that gives some life and depth to a real person who’s only remembered today because she committed suicide on live television. The script itself plays pretty loose with the facts and fails to stick the landing, but succeeds at humanizing its subject and is bolstered by several extremely strong performances, notably that of its lead, Rebecca Hall. The movie is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.
Christine Chubbuck was a 29-year-old reporter for a local TV news program in Sarasota at the time she took her own life, a decision that seems to have come at the end of a series of personal and professional setbacks as well as the reemergence of an undertreated case of mental illness. Christine delves into those setbacks while also giving some depth to her character, but without romanticizing either her or her decision. She’s sympathetic despite obvious flaws here, without becoming just an object of curiosity for the ending we all know is coming.
Most of the film compresses Chubbuck’s professional and personal problems into a period of a few days or weeks prior to her suicide. Her station manager, Michael Nelson (played by Tracy Letts), is pushing everyone to chase more salacious stories, citing the “if it bleeds, it leads” maxim, to boost ratings, which shifts the kind of longform news pieces that Chubbuck wants to do on to the back burner, increasing her conflicts with Nelson, who is depicted here as anti-feminist but who understands that Chubbuck has untapped talent. She also has an unrequited crush on the show’s lead anchor, George Peter Ryan (a charismatic Michael C. Hall), and discovers that she has to have an ovary removed, reducing her chances of ever getting pregnant. (She really did have that operation, but it was a year before her suicide.)
Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck as permanently tightly wound, regardless of mood, giving the impression that she’s bipolar rather than simply depressed, which fits her brother’s recollections of her rather than her diagnosis at the time. Hall’s Chubbuck is always in fourth gear, which makes her difficult to work with, but never a caricature of a “crazy” person; when the script calls for her to be erratic, Hall portrays her with self-control, like someone who’s internalizing the pain of her mental illness.
I had less issue with the film’s bending or fabricating of details – for example, the character Jean (Maria Dizzia, who is just waiting for her part in a Gilda Radner biopic) doesn’t seem to have existed, but here plays Christine’s closest friend at the station instead of sportscaster Andrea Kirby – than the film’s mawkish ending and cloying use of details to tie parts of the movie together. The movie doesn’t shy away from Chubbuck’s suicide, showing the shot from a distance but otherwise playing it straight, including the disbelieving reactions from coworkers who thought it was a prank at first. But it overdoes the aftermath by showing us Chubbuck’s mother watching the program (probably not true) and then a fabricated ending with Jean that serves no purpose but to tie back to a conversation the two women had earlier in the film. This last scene undermines the dramatic effects of the suicide and the seriousness of the portrayal of Chubbuck’s personal problems, but provides zero benefit in exchange.
Rebecca Hall’s performance here would be, at the moment, the second-best by a lead actress that I’ve seen in any 2016 film, just a shade behind Natalie Portman for Jackie and ahead of Oscar winner Emma Stone. She delivered nuance to a script that gave her enough latitude to play Chubbuck as unhinged or unlikable, even when working against a stock character like her mother (played by J. Smith Cameron, who, I just discovered, is married to Kenneth Lonergan). Hall hits this specific note of internal tension and holds it for almost the entire film, only letting it go briefly in scenes where Chubbuck goes to the local children’s hospital to do puppet shows for the kids (something Chubbuck did in real life). In a highly fictionalized biopic like Christine, a sloppy or bombastic lead performance would destroy the film, but Hall truly carries the picture and helps gloss over some of the script’s missteps.
Michael C. Hall is also surprisingly effective as the insecure, dumb-jock type who’s found his star on the ascendant because of his good looks and on-camera charm, while Letts is his usual workmanlike self, infusing a little depth to a character who’s largely one-note because he’s only seen when interacting with and usually just reacting to Christine. Dizzia probably has to do the most work with the least help, as her character is the hackneyed “best friend with no life of her own” type, stripping some character traits from Kirby (played by Kim Shaw), who is instead just the pretty face who gets the job and the guy that Chubbuck wanted.
I wish Christine had spent a little more time explaining the character’s struggles with mental illness, and hadn’t made her so dismissive of the topic in the one scene where it’s explicitly discussed; Chubbuck’s brother has said she was in treatment at the time of her suicide, which this film seems to contradict. But bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive disorder) wasn’t in the DSM until after Chubbuck’s death, so she was only diagnosed with depression and thus was probably undertreated rather than untreated when she killed herself. The script instead focuses on her unhappiness in her love life and at work as the primary drivers of her suicide, backburnering the depression, when that was almost certainly the main cause.
Watch Christine for its strong lead performance, for the solid supporting actors, and for the film’s effort to fill out the story of a real person whose legacy has been limited to its shock value. The script has its flaws, but does manage to give the viewer a picture of Christine Chubbuck as a real person, and the decision not to sensationalize the suicide itself, instead making her character the center of the film, saved the movie from its handful of missteps.