In the opening moments of the fact-based Christine, Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), conducts an imaginary interview with Richard Nixon. A local TV reporter for a Sarasota, Fla., station in the early 1970s, Christine mostly works the features beat. Interviewing the president, then in the midst of the Watergate scandal, is an act of daydreaming. The question she asks the embattled commander-in-chief, however, is one taken from the heart: “Is it paranoia if anyone is indeed after you?” On some level she seems to relate to Nixon’s no-escape predicament. By the end of the film, after suggesting she’s feeding a need for “blood and guts” on the news, she’ll kill herself live on the air in front of shocked viewers, leaving behind copy to be read after she pulls the trigger, a professional to the end.
As played by Hall, Christine talks flatly and directly, has a gift for holding eye contact, and rarely smiles. It’s a performance that matches up with the meager available footage of the real-life Chubbuck, but it never feels like an impression. Hall plays Chubbuck as a woman who keeps the world at arm’s length, even when she’d rather not. It’s a trait that makes her a good reporter but brings her little happiness in the rest of her life. Hall’s work here is remarkable, capturing the inner turmoil of a woman who rarely reveals more than she has to and lashes out at those around her to hide her vulnerability.
She quickly escalates conflicts with her producer Michael (Tracy Letts) into shouting matches and pushes away her mother (J. Smith Cameron), who lives with her and whom Christine treats more like a roommate than a parent. Alone, she sings along to early ‘70s soft rock that promises her the love and happiness that eludes her in real life. In unguarded moments, she’ll let her eyes drift to her anchorman co-worker George (Michael C. Hall), while struggling to find the courage to take him up on his offer of dinner.
Scripted by Craig Shilowich and directed by Antonio Campos (Afterschool), the film keeps its distance as Hall conveys the many ways Christine has started to crumble on the inside, a personal breakdown that coincides with some unwelcome changes on the job. As the station transitions from film to video, it starts to emphasize sensationalized takes on crime and other topics. Where Christine could previously interview chicken farmers and deliver five-minute segments on zoning issues, she finds herself using a police scanner to rush to the scene of trailer park fires before anyone else can get the story. She’s attempting to adapt to a new era in which she might no longer have a place.
There are several different forces at work in the story. The film’s at once about Christine’s on-the-job difficulties (and the uphill struggle faced by women in the industry) and about a woman whose mental illness is making her disintegrate. It’s never clear to what degree the former affects the latter, and it’s to Campos’ credit that he doesn’t make the direct connection that a simpler film might have tried. His formal approach keeps the film from becoming exploitative. It treats Christine’s tragedy as a question without an answer, letting it play out and leaving us to wonder what it all means, and contemplate how over 40 years later we’re no closer to finding an answer.