The late TV reporter Christine Chubbuck is hardly a household name, yet suddenly – and somewhat inexplicably – there are two movies about her, both of which screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
One of them, “Kate Plays Christine,” is a sort of meta-documentary, in which actress Kate Lyn Sheil is shown researching and preparing for a film role as Chubbuck, a Sarasota, Florida, reporter whose claim to infamy is that she committed suicide on live television in 1974. Although the film that Sheil is purportedly working on doesn’t actually exist, a second feature film, “Christine,” starring the marvelous Rebecca Hall, does.
There are hints that “Christine” aspires to deliver the kind of searing critique of the sensationalizing of broadcast news that “Network” did in 1976. The title character’s station manager, played by Tracy Letts, is a proponent of the simple-minded “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy, much to Christine’s chagrin. Yet in the script by Craig Shilowich, a producer turning his hand to screenwriting for the first time, that chagrin seems to have played less of a role in Christine’s final act than the fact that she was a lonely, often abrasive 29-year-old virgin with a history of depression, still living with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron).
Over the course of the film, which proceeds in the dutifully linear fashion of a conventional biopic, Christine experiences both romantic and professional rejection. First, she is rebuffed by a co-worker crush (Michael C. Hall), and then almost immediately passed over for a transfer to another station in the higher-profile Baltimore market by her company’s owner (John Cullum).
Cullum shares a nice scene with the film’s star, as Christine shows up at the boss’ house late one night to, essentially, beg him to promote her. Unfortunately, he’s sloshed, which only adds to his blunt honesty. She’s desperate and vulnerable, and Hall is at the top of her game, capturing Christine’s painful sense that this is an end-of-the-rope gambit. The actress dowdies up her portrayal with a glumly unsmiling demeanor and the flat, poignantly cynical vocal delivery of the nerd who’s smarter – and more annoying – than everyone else in the room.
But a great performance does not necessarily make for great tragedy, and “Christine” remains mired in the minutiae of its portrait of a doomed, bitter young woman. As portrayed by Hall, Christine Chubbuck is neither a loser nor a prescient visionary, but rather something in between. Her Christine is both more real and somehow less vivid than many movie characters, except perhaps for those envisioned by the Italian neorealists. She’s a human being writ for a cramped and puny stage, with all the slightness that the small screen implies.