Real News: Rebecca Hall captivates in compelling, empathetic "Christine"

Christine (2016)
115 min., rated R.

Not to be confused with the Stephen King adaptation about the possessed car, “Christine” is a devastatingly humane portrait of Christine Chubbuck, a TV field reporter who was barely noticed until her tragic on-air suicide on July 15, 1974 right before her 30th birthday. Director Antonio Campos (2008’s provocative, unflinching “Afterschool”) and writer Craig Shilowich not only say something about sensationalism in the media but depict a broken person. Refusing to fall into the trap of exploitation, the film is too sensitive and empathetic for that, gaining insight into what makes Christine tick. Rebecca Hall’s extraordinary performance deserves raves, and “Christine” itself is riveting and respectfully honest as a character study.

Moving to Sarasota, Florida, after an incident involving her battle with depression in Boston, local WZRB 30 investigative reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hell) is under a lot of pressure in her life. She finds meaning in her work, editing her pieces late at night, and also finds time to perform puppet shows at a children's hospital. Christine's only real friend at work is camerawoman Jean Reed (Maria Dizzia). Her working mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), lives with her and barely contributes to the rent. She’s been feeling pain in her abdomen but shrugs it off, until it's revealed that she has a cyst requiring the removal of one of her ovaries. At work, Christine is marginalized and stifled by her boss, Mike (Tracy Letts), who keeps bumping her stories and tells his news team that in order to get higher ratings they need juicier, grittier stories. When Christine has finally had enough—and life isn’t going her way—she decides to get bold and brave, following her boss’ sensationalistic catchphrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Even if she goes to fatally desperate lengths, Christine will make those watching sit up and take notice.

As dedicated as Christine herself, Rebecca Hall is captivating. Portraying an ambitious working woman troubled by her unstable psyche and black-and-white moods, she earns our sympathy and empathy. Though no archival footage can be found of the real Christine, Hall embodies this real-life person with a socially awkward, slightly unapproachable demeanor and speaks in a brusque, baritone voice. The character is not written as a victim, and Hall never plays Christine as a victim; she wants to make a point in the name of the channel's "policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts." The supporting cast is excellent, too, including Michael C. Hall, as slick news anchor George Ryan; Tracy Letts, as Christine’s difficult boss Mike; a warm, lovely Maria Dizzia, as Christine’s friend and co-worker Jean; and J. Smith-Cameron, as Christine’s flaky but still-loving mother Peg.

Whether one knows the outcome or not, “Christine” is so closely observed and compelling in its own right that dramatic impact is never diminished. Audiences may forget that it still takes a filmmaker’s touch, great writing and performances to make a film based on a true story actually worthwhile; these things don’t just direct, write and act themselves. Telling a story that transcended the news medium and even went on to inspire 1976’s Sidney Lumet-directed “Network,” the film even flawlessly re-creates the time and place, just as the TV industry was transitioning from film to video. The final moments leading up to the inevitable but shocking event are startling and uncomfortably gut-wrenching. Instead of merely cutting to black and following up Christine's suicide with title cards, the note director Campos decides to end on is unexpectedly more understated and quietly heartbreaking that it packs even more of an emotional wallop. For those willing to be prepared for a difficult end, “Christine” is rewarding with the haunting imprint it leaves.

Grade: B +