“Christine”: A reporter’s meltdown, live and in living color

Production still from set of CHRISTINE, 2015

The folks at Madison Film Forum, LakeFrontRow and Four Star Video Cooperative had a ball this week with the 2nd Annual Missed Madison Film Festival, a “virtual festival” focusing on 20 strong independent movies that didn’t (or haven’t) played Madison yet. The full roster of movies is here, and you can find most of them in a special display at Four Star if they’re out on DVD already.

I thought I’d piggyback onto the party since I’ve seen Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” and it doesn’t look like it will be making it to Madison theaters despite strong reviews. It’s currently available on video-on-demand on iTunes and Amazon, and will be out on DVD on Valentine’s Day.

“Christine” is the second movie this year to tackle the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota TV news reporter who shot and killed herself on-air in 1974. Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” (reviewed by David Klein at LakeFrontRow during the MMFF) is a documentary-fiction hybrid which captures actress Kate Lyn Sheil in the act of portraying Chubbuck.

“Christine,” meanwhile, is more of a straightforward drama that recounts Chubbuck’s last few weeks. Campos resolutely refuses to sensationalize this horrible story, instead opting for a straightforward, empathetic look at Chubbuck and the personal and professional pressures that drove her to suicide. It is extremely hard to watch, especially during the last half hour as the film recounts Chubbuck’s final day with almost agonizing matter-of-factness, but extremely rewarding.

With her flat, skeptical Ohio accent and tightly-wound demeanor, Chubbuck already feels like an outcast in the Florida community. Her brand of public affairs journalism, substantive but stodgy, is also out of step with sort of news her exasperated station manager (the terrific Tracy Letts) wants. If she had only been born a generation later, her approach to news — personal stories with an eye towards social justice — might have found an audience on outlets like public radio.

Campos’ camera revels in the tawdriness of the news station, the greasy fingerprint smudges on the tape machines and the frayed carpet located just out of camera’s view at the news desk. But if this is a dead end for Chubbuck (we come to learn that she was previously working at a station in the much larger Boston market but had some sort of nervous collapse), she doesn’t show it. She pushes herself hard, carrying the weight of her self-imposed responsibility to serve the community on her shoulders.

Chubbuck is approaching her 30th birthday and plagued with self-doubt, her personal life at a standstill as she watches her free-wheeling mother bringing men home. A dalliance with the station’s handsome anchor (Michael C. Hall) goes nowhere, and, afraid of being vulnerable, turns prickly and abrasive when co-workers offer overtures of friendship.

“Christine” is a slow burn, held together by Hall’s magnificently controlled performance. We feel for this talented, driven woman who can’t get out of her own way, and holds herself to expectations impossible to meet. In a way, her life shows the cruel underside of the life of a career woman, expected to juggle it all and still smile at the casual sexist jokes the men toss around the office.

In a bit of sad irony, especially given this week’s news, the movie ends with another female co-worker coming home to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the show embodying all the possibilities of being a ’70s career woman that were so hard to achieve in reality. Plagued by mental health issues, thrust into a high-pressure, unfeeling business that didn’t appreciate her talents, Christine couldn’t make it after all.

 

 

 

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