“If it bleeds it leads,” is an accepted mantra around newsrooms these days but back in 1974 it was a new, controversial idea. Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), an investigative reporter at a local ABC affiliate in Sarasota, Florida, was particularly disdainful of the idea until she became the poster child for news sensationalism.
In “Christine,” a based-on-true-events film, Chubbuck is working at local station WZRB. She’s a steely presence, a serious person doing light news. “People are listening to me,” she says, “so I have to be sure I’m really saying something.” Reports on strawberry festivals and local events are the station’s stock in trade but the station manager (Tracey Letts) is desperate to get higher ratings. How? “Juicier stories,” he says. “If it bleeds it leads.” When the station owner (John Cullum) decides to poach one or two of the Sarasota on-air talents for his much larger Baltimore new division, Christine sees that as a way out. “So if I get some footage of fat people burning in cars and I’m on my way to Baltimore?”
Her progression to the larger market is stymied by illness and depression—“My life is a cesspool,” she says.”—and culminates with the news reporter becoming the news. On July 15, 1974 Chubbuck was on air, reading the news when announced, “In keeping with WZRB’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see complete coverage of an attempted suicide,” before putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger.
The events in “Christine” are well documented, so the shocking finale doesn’t come so much as a shock but the inevitable consequence of history. With the element of surprise removed what’s left is a look at the woman at the heart of the story. Hall plays Chubbuck as an almost otherworldly presence, someone who doesn’t quite feel comfortable in her own skin, always judging herself and those around her. “You’re not always the most approachable person,” co-worker George Ryan (Michael C. Hall) tells her, and that is the beauty of Hall’s work. In a terrific performance that elevates the movie, she plays Chubbuck as aloof but human, edgy and without a trace of sentimentality.