Directed by Antonio Campos
Okay, so Christine is a mix of Network (1976), Nightcrawler (2014), Blue Jasmine (2013) and Taxi Driver (1976). Set in 1974, the story of a local news reporter plays out in the shadow of the Woodward and Bernstein takedown of Richard Nixon which is chronicled in another 1976 film, All the President’s Men.
Christine Chubbuck, the real person, was a small town reporter who committed suicide live on air. It’s a tragic tale, and the conclusion is the only reason this film was made. There’s no getting around that, but Christine treats its main character (played by Rebecca Hall) as a real person. Her struggle is profound, haunting and frustrating. She’s a person struggling with depression and a few other frustrations that might be disconnected except for in her own mind. When you follow the same line of thinking as she has in this film, everything becomes one in the same. Each misstep or force working against her is a symptom of her life as a whole. It’s a series of avalanches knocking her down.
To be Christine or to be around her seems a daunting task. The film works as well as it does, I’d say, because it makes her struggle feel sincere, partially because we can see the person underneath all of this. The forces which compel Christine to her grizzly end are there from the start, but she is a hardworking, passionate part of the team. She might not even stand out from the other characters at the start were the film not named after her.
So we watch as Christine starts to unravel around the edges. We are given reason to believe she’s had a mental breakdown before (as characters whisper and talk around her time in Boston), so when she meets the slightest bump in the road, the wide eyes of those around her tell us this could easily become something much more than a quiet roadblock.
Rebecca Hall plays Christine with an unsettling intensity. You get the sense that her teeth are always grinding and that she’s living somewhere between the manic rush of the first sip of coffee and the early afternoon caffeine hangover. Where others walk on level ground, she must endure a weighted playing field, always slipping one way or another.
The main force of opposition Christine faces is her frazzled boss, Michael (Tracy Letts). He wants the network to pursue higher ratings even at the cost of journalistic integrity, and Christine is the only person who won’t fall in line. Once she sees her career threatened, she will fall in line, at least only long enough to get what she wants in order to go out on her own terms.
Christine is idealistic or insane or both. She has a lot of Edward Bloom in Nightcrawler in her, and when we see just how far she is willing to go to get what she wants, she suddenly becomes an entirely new creature. We understand her motivations, but we have a very difficult time (hopefully) relating to her intense devotion to her goal. She deludes herself into believing certain things, whether positive or negative, and because she decides that her only course of survival is to get whatever she’s after, she will go to unsettling lengths to accomplish her goal. In this case it’s the pursuit of an anchor position at a Baltimore news station with access to a much wider audience.
Christine’s story is haunting for a number of reasons, but I’d say the main one is the absolute devotion to a material goal and the diminishing returns that come with such a pursuit. The more she thinks she needs this victory, the more we can see just how little that victory would yield in terms of happiness. She loses herself early in this journey, and we watch for sometime knowing she will never regain the grasp on reality she may have had at the start.
It’s the same kind of capitalistic goal you see in stories where a character needs to win. Whether it’s Nightcrawler, Whiplash, or parts of Goodellas and Casino. The characters have to win, but they have no sense of what that will cost them. These characters eventually reach the top only to be left there alone, like Daniel Plainview in his mansion or Walter White with his stacks of money wasting away in a storage facility.
I think there’s a little Christine in all of us, but hopefully only in manageable doses. We all want something, and there are times in life when we don’t get that thing we so badly hoped for, maybe even expected. But, in most cases, we take a deep breath, commiserate and vent for a few hours or days, and then we’re back on our feet.
Christine is the part of us that can’t bear to lose, the part of us we need to reckon with and soon put to bed in order to live healthy lives. She is in some sense a personification of unlimited ego. She desperately wants and needs these things which she thinks she deserves, precisely because of how badly she wants them. She’s like a twisted version of Lisa Simpson.
What’s troubling, again, is that Christine was a real person, and I don’t like the way I’m describing her. She’s a tragic figure because she never got the help she really needed. Maybe there’s a degree of commentary hear about how certain diseases are left untreated as long as they in some way contribute to society. The signs of Christine’s depression and mental illness were there early on, but because they made her a passionate, hardworking employee then they were left untreated. It’s only when those forces began to double over on themselves that she became a problem to her employer.
America is built on capitalism, and so many movies have tackled the darksides of such a way of life. Ace in the Hole and The Sweet Smell of Success are two old films that come to mind, dealing with characters who are so strict in their pursuit of victory until it, in one case, kills him, as it does here. We celebrate passionate, diligent, committed, even mad geniuses whether they are artists, athletes or otherwise. We celebrate the thing that gets someone to the top without ever really having to deal with where they go afterward. We love a good success story, and Christine’s journey might just be the first half of the success story. The film then chronicles what happens afterward. After all, she is a woman in what remained (and remains) a male-dominated world. She’s in a position of some power, and while we never learn how she got there, we have some sense that it has to do with the same forces which will bring about her undoing.
My lasting thought, when considering this film, involves a quote from the Disney movie Cool Runnings… “a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”
Up Next: A Quiet Place (2018), The Match Factory Girl (1990), The Running Man (1987)