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Review: Christine (2016)

Christine (2016)

Directed by: Antonio Campos

Premise: A drama about Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), a reporter for a small Florida television station in the 1970s. She struggles with depression and clashes with a news director who wants more salacious material for the newscast.

What Works: Christine is a character study of a woman working in media at a time when the nature of television news was changing. Previous to the 1970s, it was taken for granted that television news divisions did not generate revenue. They operated at a financial loss that was made up by the rest of a station’s programming and good reporting was a source of pride that gave prestige to a station and a network. That all began to change in the 1970s and reporters were pressured to devise stories that would increase ratings and thereby generate revenue. This naturally led to a race to the bottom as sensationalism overtook news media. The film Christine picks up in the midst of this conflict. As she is depicted in the film, Christine Chubbuck was a television reporter who primarily worked on human interest stories and did a lot of work in the community as a reporter and as a volunteer, highlighting causes and stories she thought were important and worthy of coverage. She runs into conflict with her coworkers and particularly her boss (Tracy Letts) who has embraced the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy. Christine is about a woman who struggles to adapt to that new matrix and is, at partially, destroyed by it. The film is led by Rebecca Hall in the title role and Hall gives a tremendous performance. Christine is an exceptional portrayal of mental illness. The real life Chubbuck suffered from depression and possibly bipolar disorder and that appears to be the case in the film. When movies portray the mentally ill they tend to either demonize these people or turn them into pathetic saints. The title character of Christine is an authentic and complex character. She is a competent employee and a good reporter but she’s also socially brusque and has trouble coping with stress. Rebecca Hall’s performance captures the full dimension of this woman’s interior and exterior life. The story of Christine does an excellent job of complicating the action so that Chubbuck’s personal challenges intertwine with her professional struggles, leading her toward the climax of the film. At the same time, the filmmakers manage to avoid the feeling of inevitability that tends to hamper reality-based dramas. As a period picture, Christine captures its era especially well; the costumes and sets look organically of their time without appearing obviously art directed.

What Doesn’t: Christine may be perceived very differently depending upon the viewer’s foreknowledge of the movie’s subject matter. Christine Chubbuck’s on air suicide was a major cultural touchstone of the 1970s but enough time has passed that contemporary viewers may not know who she was and what the film is leading toward. For those who do know where the story is going, Christine may play too obvious. The story sets up several challenges in Chubbuck’s life and then allows each of those pressures to steer her toward suicide. For those who are not familiar with the background of this story, Christine may play too obliquely. The film is a character study of a woman suffering from mental illness that is complicated by the drama in her personal and professional life but the significance of her death might be lost on unfamiliar viewers. In its own way, the conclusion actually works for Christine in that the film stays focused on Chubback as a person rather than a headline or a cultural footnote but the story ends abruptly and so it doesn’t unpack those ideas for the audience.

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, news footage.

Bottom Line: Christine is an absorbing character study. The film provides a nuanced and compassionate portrait of Christine Chubbuck and of mental illness and it has a great performance by Rebecca Hall. It’s also a provocative movie with its implicit suggestion that a sensationalist media environment might lead people to devalue their own lives.

Episode: #644 (April 23, 2017)