Arguably, the highest compliment you can pay a film based on a true story is that it does not feel like it was based on a true story. This is not meant to denigrate the tragically short life of Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck, but when I see “Based on a true story” or “Based on true events” at the beginning of a movie, the unsettling fear I will see a series of events, rather than a story, hits me in the face. Christine easily could have been an excuse to exploit her on-camera suicide in 1974 due to it being an event people remember. Thanks to a pitch-perfect performance by Rebecca Hall and a script that explores her pain and not how she fits in the greater cultural landscape, this is the rare biopic that avoids all the trappings that genre of film brings about.
Christine Chubbuck has a severe case of depression, something she is too self-enclosed to discuss. Her personal life is almost nonexistent, rarely ever going on dates and still a virgin approaching thirty. The only regular social interaction she has is with her mom at a restaurant to talk, even though her mom lives in Christine’s house, without paying rent. She also highly disapproves of many things in her mom’s life, such as smoking pot and seeing many men. Christine is a straight arrow, overthinks, and wants to keep everything in check, carrying around a notepad to take copious notes on everything. She wants to make believe her life is authentically presented to people even though it is far from it. In her mind, she has concocted the belief she is in love with her lead anchor George (Michael C. Hall), though the two haven’t even so much as gotten drinks together due to her immediate pivoting of the subject if brought up.
Because of this, she encloses herself in her work, focusing on positive, authentic human interest pieces, even though her boss (Tracy Letts) has hopped on the 1970s transition of news to “if it bleeds, it leads.” The ratings for the station are in the dumps, and he sees it as the only way to boost viewership. Sensationalizing the news, as Christine sees it, goes totally against what the news is supposed to be and her perception of wanting to seem real. That’s why she puts so much time into calculating the perfect leans and head tilts to give off the appearance of being in the moment during interviews. People struggling with depression never want to appear not normal, and the bottling up of these feelings is the last thing healthy to do.
Hall as the titular Christine is stunning. From the first second you see her, Hall’s awkwardly abrasive presence is captivating and tragic. Her shoulders tight and gawky stride exude a woman uncomfortable not just in the world but her own body. She never sentimentalizes or victimizes Christine. Her afflictions are not phony. The external troubles in her life do not cause her pain but only make it deeper. Hall works from the inside out, embodying this woman in a way that not only gives her tragedy the sadness inherent in it but an understanding it rightly deserves, a quality Chubbuck herself looked for in her own stories.
Her supporting players, filled with technically skilled character actors, color her life exceptionally well. Michael C. Hall relishes the cheesy local newscaster presentation and gives credibility to a man transitioned from a high-school quarterback to personal health seeker. Tracy Letts as Christine’s exasperated boss is commanding without being over the top, confrontational without being petty. As the station owner not terribly concerned with the news, John Cullum is endearing, though he never stops being the most intimidating man in the room even without saying anything or being particularly stern. And Maria Dizzia as Christine’s one actual office friend has a warm demeanor and an interesting chemistry with Hall.
It takes a few minutes for director Antonio Campos to really key in to how he wants to portray this woman’s struggle, but once he does, it’s smooth sailing from there, crafting an intensely emotional dive into Christine Chubbuck’s mind. It may have taken forty-two years for her story to make it to screen, but this is the right group of people to tell it. I have loved Rebecca Hall for a long time, and this is her best work to date on screen. More movies based on true stories could learn a thing or two from Christine. Make it intimate. Make it human.
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