NOTE: Technically, this review is full of spoilers, but given that it ends with the event that made its title character famous, they’re mostly impossible to avoid.
Budd Dwyer was an American politician convicted for corruption. His response was to, during a televised press conference, commit suicide by gunshot. The video of Budd Dwyer’s on-air suicide is on YouTube, free to see. Even without any hint of context, it’s a profoundly disturbing video, presenting images that are difficult to shake off. A similar incident in 1974, where reporter Christine Chubbuck killed herself on air, has also become enshrined in history, but no video of the incident remains available. Perhaps the mystery that surrounds the footage itself spurred the development of the film Christine, a biopic of sorts depicting the final weeks of Chubbuck’s life. But even though we’re seeing a fictionalized version of events, Christine is disturbing in the same way as the Dwyer footage, and while it’s well-made and well-acted, it’s hard to say whether it justifies its own existence beyond our morbid curiosity.
Christine opens with most of the wheels spinning towards the tragedy already in motion, seemingly waiting for another shoe to drop. Chubbuck, as played by Rebecca Hall, is living with her mother, infatuated with her co-worker (Michael C. Hall), and upset at her boss’ reaction to the ratings struggle of their news program. While he wants juicier stories, Chubbuck wants to focus on issues and character-based stories. While the film threatens, at times, to become a retread of Network and Nightcrawler, it ultimately isn’t about exposing the shallowness of the news, but rather exploring Chubbuck’s depression. While certainly the actions of others contribute to her malaise, the film never suggests any ill intent or Carrie-esque villainy. Most of the characters, from her freedom-seeking mother to her colleagues, are imperfect people trying to help Chubbuck in imperfect ways. The film’s portrayal of Chubbuck doesn’t let her off the hook for her own inflexibility and self-centered worldview, exposing the shallowness of her character-based news stories through her inability to see other people beyond the narrow roles they fill (mother, love interest, boss/enemy). It’s a delicate line to walk, as Chubbuck could easily come across as intolerable, but Hall’s performance lets us feel her struggle every step of the way. The fact that she’s struggling to be her best self and unwilling to change her expectations of what that means is tragic, but Hall makes her relatable rather than infuriating.
Does Christine offer enough to justify its own existence beyond the very blood-and-guts sensationalism that Chubbuck railed against? Is a powerful performance and non-trivialized depiction of depression worth exploiting a real-life, ultimately small-scale tragedy? It’s a compelling film, but does it offer a unique enough perspective? It comes closest in its final moments, focusing on how co-worker Jean (Maria Dizzia) deals with the aftermath. Hall’s Chubbuck was unable to relate to the struggles of others, even though they mirrored her own more than she knew. In exploring the coping mechanisms of others and providing some last-minute characterization to a scene-filler, Christine suggests that broad empathy may be the best healing salve.
Directed by Antonio Campos
Starring Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Maria Dizzia, and J. Smith-Cameron
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)