Film and TV

A Biopic of a Distraught Journalist Does Too Little with Too Much

In one of the more bizarre coincidences of film scheduling, the brief life of a TV journalist whose biggest scoop was announcing her own death on air is recapitulated for the second time this year. Released in August, Robert Greene’s porous documentary Kate Plays Christine highlights the impossibility, even the absurdity, of trying to understand its ostensible subject, Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself in the back of the head in mid-July 1974 while reporting the morning news on an ABC affiliate in Sarasota, Florida. Greene’s project, a mise en abyme in which actress Kate Lyn Sheil both gathers facts about Chubbuck and occasionally performs as the troubled newswoman in a deliberately flat, inept style, is an exercise in austerity, in anti-acting. In contrast, Antonio Campos’s straightforward biopic Christine, like most films in its genre, relies on excess: acting as extreme sport, period fetishism, signpost dialogue.

When we first see Christine — who is played by Rebecca Hall, daubed with maquillage that is a little too grotesque, a little too late-period Joan Crawford — she is seated at a table in the studio pretending to interview Richard Nixon. (Archival television reports about Watergate appear throughout the movie; Chubbuck’s suicide occurred a few weeks before the disgraced president resigned.) The phantom interlocutor suggests just how ambitious the 29-year-old journalist is, and possibly how deluded: As host of the community-affairs program Suncoast Digest, Chubbuck reported on strawberry festivals and interviewed chicken farmers.

But it is work that she takes pride in, extolling the virtues of her “issue-oriented, character-based pieces” to station manager Mike Nelson (Tracy Letts), who has begun to insist on more sensational news stories. Christine’s mounting professional frustrations are outmatched by her personal ones: Lonely and burdened by health problems, she lives at home with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), an arrangement that provides both comfort and endless dysfunction. Peg’s active dating life terrifies her virginal daughter, whose nights are spent writing to-do lists and listening to a police scanner for story ideas in a frilly bedroom adorned with framed posters of the Carpenters and Gordon Lightfoot. Although these particular MOR superstars aren’t featured on Christine’s soundtrack, the film, unable to remain silent for too long, contains a jukebox worth of easy-listening hits by John Denver and Olivia Newton-John, among others; the needle dropping on one of Christine’s LPs is shot almost as lovingly as another artifact of the analog era, a flatbed editing machine.

In between the soft rock, the moody, depressive newswoman shrieks, “My life is a cesspool.” (Christine — the third film by Campos, whose previous features, 2008’s Afterschool and 2012’s Simon Killer, center on detached young men — is the first for which he did not also write the screenplay; that credit belongs to Craig Shilowich, making his scripting debut here.) Her posture too ostentatiously hunched, Hall moves as if the wide lapels of her blazers were secreted with 20-pound weights. Though the London-born actress has always, ever since her breakthrough performance in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), expertly captured the cadences of a several different regional American accents, her Christine speaks in an abrasive foghorn of barely concealed fury and despair, whether on or off air. By the end of Christine — and of Christine — the reporter is at once burdened with too many signifiers (is Chubbuck a tragic heroine of second-wave feminism? Of our current macabre newscape? Of untreated depression?) and a cipher. As with most biopics that resort to maximalism, more is less.