When I reviewed Kate Plays Christine, a film about Christine Chubbuck, the Florida newscaster who committed suicide on air in 1974, after seeing it at the Independent Film Festival Boston in April, I remarked on how singularly bizarre it was that it debuted not only in the same year, but at the same festival as Christine, a biopic about the same woman. I’m sure for those who attended Sundance and saw both films in quick succession that it was an even more otherworldly experience. I’ve had a six month break, only now having the opportunity to see Christine upon its American release this weekend, but the strangeness of it all remains arresting, even after a huge layoff to (theoretically, at least) reset my brain and look at Antonio Campos’ interpretation of Christine Chubbuck’s life and death as its own piece of art without Robert Greene’s...documentary? Psychodrama? Pseudo non-fiction experiment...thing? Perhaps the bold unique style of Kate Plays Christine makes it a tougher prospect to leave at the door. But it’s worthy a shot, at least.
Christine follows Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall)through the tumultuous last months of her life as a human interest profiler/reporter for a Sarasota, Florida news station. Her pieces on chicken farming and strawberry festivals make her content, but as ratings lag, the managing editor (Tracy Letts) wants their pieces to embrace an edgier “if it bleeds it leads” ethos, much to her chagrin. Chubbuck tries to adapt to the new paradigm while suppressing her crush on the hunky lead anchor (Michael C. Hall) and battling a painful stomach condition that could jeopardize her ability to conceive. As her work life spirals out of control, her relationship with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) fails to ground her fragile psyche, but a promotion opportunity that would relocate her to Baltimore gives her something to work toward and a possible respite from a rapidly deteriorating social life.
Chubbuck’s legacy is somewhat mysterious, with limited biographical information and practically no archival footage of her surviving to this day. Without all that much to go on, Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilovich tend to struggle to fill in Christine’s backstory in a satisfying manner. They know where they need to get to, and they have a few data points of information to go on, like her work performing puppet shows for disabled children and a boilerplate unrequited workplace crush. The film provides a myriad of reasons for why she eventually pulls the trigger, but for perhaps ephemeral reasons, it doesn’t feel particularly convincing. Too often it slides backward into conventional biopic tropes, offering little to grasp the attention beyond Rebecca Hall’s central performance.
Hall is the main attraction of Christine, and she certainly succeeds in creating at least a baseline level of quality and excitement even as the narrative itself is lacking. She absorbs Chubbuck’s undeniably unique accent with preternatural skill, and feels at home with the emotional heavy lifting the role requires. Depression and anxiety are such internal conflicts and emotions that it can be difficult to play them on screen without over-tipping the hand and sliding into mania, but Hall remains restrained in a truly gratifying way. The aesthetics of the film are another strength; 70s period pieces are arguably a bit old hat these days, with their earthy brown color palettes and wood paneled walls, but Campos and crew sell it well, even if the Sarasota setting is a bit nondescript. The supporting turns from Michael C. Hall and Tracy Letts (a busy man this year; Christine marks his fifth major credit of 2016) are perfectly acceptable, but they are left with naught but crumbs to try and forge into compelling parts. They come up short, but it’s difficult to blame them for it.
In practice, Christine feels akin to The Iron Lady, the 2011 Meryl Streep vehicle that featured an excellent lead performance and absolutely nothing else of consequence. Rebecca Halls’ performance is arguably as accomplished a turn as that which won Streep her third Academy Award, but just like the Margaret Thatcher biopic, a compelling lead isolated on its own does not a fulfilling movie make. It is perhaps fitting that one of the central themes of Kate Plays Christine revolved around the futility of making a film about Chubbuck’s life (so Robert Greene made it as much about the acting process as Chubbuck as a character), a concept borne out by this film that premiered at the same festival. Rebecca Hall’s performance ensures that Christine cannot simply be written off as a failure, but it also makes watching the film an eminently frustrating experience. There should be a good narrative to be found in a film about Christine Chubbuck. Unfortunately, Christine is not it.