Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
On July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a journalist and newscaster working at Sarasota's WXLT-TV, began her live broadcast with the words: "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts', and in living color, you are going to see another first —attempted suicide." She then pulled out a gun and shot herself in the head, live on-air. She died in the hospital later that day. The event sparked much controversy and conversation in the news world as well as in Chubbuck's smaller world of friends and associates. All of this laid out in intricate detail in Sally Quinn's article about Chubbuck for the Washington Post in the immediate aftermath of Chubbuck's suicide.
Who knows what zeitgeist is at work that 2016 has seen two films about Christine Chubbuck? Is it the same zeitgeist that brought us not one, but two, films about Florence Foster Jenkins in the same year? In terms of Chubbuck, first there was "Kate Plays Christine," Robert Greene's meta-documentary about an actress preparing to play Christine Chubbuck, and now "Christine," a biopic directed by Antonio Campos.
"Christine," centered on a riveting and at times unbearably emotional performance by Rebecca Hall, attempts to give a three-dimensional and respectful-yet-honest portrait of a complex woman. Sometimes the film is successful in this, sometimes it's not. There are questions of exploitation that nag throughout, as well as a queasy feeling that we the audience are participating in exploiting this troubled woman all over again. Rebecca Hall's performance, however, is one of the most insightful portraits in recent memory of how untreated depression can operate. Depression is not pleasant, and people who suffer from it are not always sympathetic. Chubbuck is a maddening person to those who love her. Even her supporters are eventually pushed away.
Chubbuck was (by all accounts) tormented by her lack of personal life, as well as her envy towards co-workers who got offers in larger national markets. She was a journalist disgusted by the increasing sensationalization of the news (she's a counterpart to her fictional contemporary, Howard Beale in "Network," whose screams "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" become a rallying cry). So disgusted was Chubbuck that her on-air suicide is seen (by some) as a critique of said sensationalism.
"Christine" plunges us into the rhythms of Christine's world: her devotion to her job, battles with her boss (Tracy Letts) over what stories to cover, her hopeless crush on news anchor George (a superb Michael C. Hall), her arrested-development relationship with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron). She volunteers at a children's hospital, teaching lessons to the kids with puppet shows. She sings along to John Denver songs in the car. What Hall really nails is Christine's intensity, her awkwardness, her compulsive and off-putting self-deprecation, as well as the gathering storm of an obliterating depression. She cuts a striking figure, with her veil of hair, hunched slim shoulders, gangly body language. She comes off as a teenager, uncomfortable in her own body after a growth spurt. Her demeanor is humorless. When someone sincerely compliments her, she is suspicious. Hall plays these black-cloud thoughts, the explosive temper tantrums, so close to the bone that it's an extremely confrontational and uncomfortably accurate performance. Whether or not it is representative of the real Christine Chubbuck is another question.
The production team recreates the period—its music and clothes and decor—in a refreshingly un-condescending way. What is most palpable is the mood of the 1970s: the "Watergate" mood of exhaustion and cynicism; the tapped-out emotional reserves of a population following the burn-out of the 1960s. News anchor George brings Christine to a "transactional analysis" meeting, thinking it might help her work out her issues (it has the opposite effect). "Women's lib" is in the air, and Christine's boss lashes out during a tense meeting, "You know what your problem is? You're a feminist." (The script, by Craig Shilowich, leaves something to be desired in such moments.)
There will be those who do not like that so much of the film focuses on Christine's personal life (her virginity; her yearning for a boyfriend; even a date, for God's sake; the surgery she needs that will render her infertile, thus closing out the window of a future she had always hoped for). Is this "reducing" a woman to her reproductive functions? But these are serious issues in some women's lives, and pre-existing depression can turn them into Greek Tragedy-level confirmation of worthlessness. Overdramatic? Well, yes. Newsflash: Depression can do that. Hall understands the warped mirror of reality that depression can create, how minor disappointments register as titanic, and major disappointments are quite literally unbearable.
There is a political aspect to this, of course. Christine Chubbuck was a woman working in a male-dominated industry. She watched as ingratiatingly "cute" reporters were promoted over her because they were un-threatening. She has a reputation for being difficult. That's because she is difficult, and in some of her confrontations with her boss she steps way way over the line. These situations are political in nature, especially in the surrounding context of mid-1970s malaise, Watergate on TV, defensiveness about "women's lib" rampant, and New Age-y therapy practices—emptied of the political action that ignited the '60s—filling an enormous spiritual void. How would Christine have been perceived if she were a man?
"Christine" doesn't quite add up, though, and its commentary on the tabloid-ification of the news is not original or new. It ends on a tepid note. Since we know, going in, where the story is headed, there's a feeling of rubbernecking at a tragedy as the events mass up against her. What are we supposed to take from the film? What is it trying to say? If she hadn't committed suicide on live television, would anyone have cared? Are these even the right questions to ask? Hall's performance is so authoritative, however, that it justifies the film's existence. She's something to see.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.