How to effectively tell a story when everyone already knows the ending? That's the conundrum faced down in Christine, the second film this year to delve into the story of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota television reporter who shot herself live on air in 1974.
The first film, Kate Plays Christine, explored Chubbuck's death in a roundabout way, following actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she travels to Sarasota to research Chubbuck and to shoot recreated scenes of her life and death.
The new movie, meanwhile, is a biopic, telling the story of Chubbuck's final weeks in much more straightforward style. Rebecca Hall's Chubbuck is an ambitious, driven reporter frustrated by the low-stakes stories she's assigned and forever clashing with the manager at the station where she works, WZRB. (In reality, the station was WXLT, a forerunner of today's ABC 7.) Chubbuck's dream, and that of her colleagues, is to move to a larger market, but Chubbuck finds herself stuck covering strawberry festivals and zoning disputes while the impeachment of President Richard Nixon is being broadcast on the national news networks. She's also stifled romantically. She pines for her colleague George (played by Dexter's Michael C. Hall), a Florida native with an unstable history who feels trapped himself.
What saves the movie from being maudlin or grim is its humor. The film captures the rhythms of being a reporter in a small town, the way important stories are given less attention than juicy ones, as well as the petty conflicts and competition that emerge in the tight confines of any office. Hall is superb as Chubbuck—shy and awkward, but also smart and giving. In one scene early in the film, she interrupts a young couple celebrating their anniversary at a restaurant, telling them how happy they seem and how fortunate they are. The moment is both funny and unsettling. As Chubbuck haltingly tries and fails to end the conversation, the tension in Hall's face betrays her isolation and romantic longing. That sense of strangeness and discomfort bleeding into outright fear suffuses many of the movie's affecting moments.
That lighter touch wasn't included in screenwriter Craig Shilowich's first draft. Shilowach has called his original version of the story "melancholic and angry and plodding," a tone that changed after he traveled to Sarasota to interview those who knew Chubbuck. He came away with a different conception of Chubbuck, a person who was, in his words, "a darkly funny, sarcastic person who loved joking around."
Christine opens at Burns Court Cinemas next Friday. It makes for an excellent complement to Kate Plays Christine, which was shown at this year's Sarasota Film Festival. The audience there included many of Chubbuck's coworkers, as well as relatives of the television station's owner, many of them with very pointed opinions about the film world's sudden interest in Chubbuck's suicide. Forty-two years after Chubbuck's death, people who knew her are still debating what exactly happened. Filmmakers, too.
Watch a trailer for Christine here: