In Christine, Antonio Campos frames his protagonist in a proliferating series of screens. There’s the nauseous green tint of Sarasota-based newscaster Christine Chubbuck’s (Rebecca Hall) imagined interview with President Nixon; the cardboard “television” surrounding her volunteer puppet shows for disabled children; the familiar range of sit-downs and stand-ups that define the “local affiliate” aesthetic. In this, the film sets its subject at a slight remove, at once transparent and impenetrable: For Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich, Chubbuck offers a chance to examine the sexual politics and journalistic excesses of Nixon’s America, but Chubbuck herself emerges as a prophetic voice that the film ultimately leaves unheeded. As she complains to her editor, Mike (Tracy Letts), of a segment on electroshock treatment, his brand of sensationalism is “exploitative,” and Christine is that rare film to commit nearly every sin of which its main character warns.
Hall’s ferocious, precise performance allows us to occasionally grasp Chubbuck’s intensifying psychological crisis, but the filmmakers largely fail to animate her inner turmoil, focusing instead on broad, blunt externalities. Against the strained, shaky, wheezing laugh Hall emits as Chubbuck’s doctor recommends a pregnancy test, Mike’s declarations on Nielsen ratings and feminism reflect the script’s reliance on flat notes: “If it bleeds, it leads” turns out to be better as the banner under which we categorize certain types of journalism than as an actual line of dialogue. By contrast, Christine skirts the issue of Chubbuck’s depression with obscure references to past troubles, “moods,” “the end of your time in Boston” from her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron)—a decision seemingly designed to match the tenor of the times, but in the process neglects one of her life’s most painful particulars.
As Chubbuck fights against assignments that she criticizes as “fender-bender reporting,” chases a potential promotion to Baltimore, and longs for the affiliate’s handsome anchor, George (Michael C. Hall), the film thus struggles to illuminate the figure at its center. She becomes the negative space around which the culture’s currents circulate, glimpsed only in outline. Her notepad, with its all-caps promises of “CRAZY STORIES,” “REAL CHARACTER,” “FEVER,” substitutes for subtler engagement with the pileup of professional, romantic, and medical challenges that push Chubbuck to emotional extremes.
In point of fact, for all of Christine’s ostensible interest in the swirl of structural forces that militate against Chubbuck’s ambitions, it’s neither sexism nor sensationalism that generates the first flashes of her profound distress, but her desire to become a wife and mother. Though she expresses her anguish through work, splicing together a dramatization of a home invasion that manages to be both stilted and grisly, the catalyst for her manic episode is the news that she requires surgical treatment for an ovarian ailment that could render her infertile. Later, when she accompanies George to the group therapy known as “transactional analysis,” the camera’s back-and-forth panning between Chubbuck and her interlocutor culminates, with a pair of abrupt cuts, in the former’s confession that she’s still a virgin.
For the filmmakers to peg the plot’s rising action to these details is strange, given that Christine’s foremost strength is its depiction of the newsroom’s strung-out rhythms, specifically the characters running through film to put the finishing touches on a segment mere minutes before air. The structure of the narrative overemphasizes the “sexual” in “sexual politics,” streamlining the complex interaction of multiple character traits (loneliness, depression, professional frustration) almost to the point of dishonoring Chubbuck. What might appear an attempt to give her personal life fuller shape is, as executed, a form of flattening. In Campos and Shilowich’s hands, Chubbuck registers, finally, as something of a cliché: the desperate spinster.
By the time Christine reaches its awful climax, in which Chubbuck lambasts the affiliate’s obsession with “blood and guts” before shooting herself in the head on live television, the film’s shallow interest in the causes of Chubbuck’s now-infamous suicide segues into its real raison d’être: the spectacle of the fateful moment itself. Seen through multiple screens, including control-room monitors and the TV set in Peg’s living room, the report of the gun and the spatter of blood gather their “significance,” such as it is, solely from the public nature of the act—not from the cloudy brew of Chubbuck’s motives.
Christine appears to exist for the sole purpose of this scene, and whatever hand-waving it does with regard to the stresses of the zeitgeist, this scene is also, in the end, what sinks it. In the film’s own reckoning, Chubbuck, committed to reporting stories without such salacious appeal, might well call the film that bears her name “exploitative.” “If it bleeds…” indeed.