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Laramie Movie Scope: Christine

How not to handle suicide in movies

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 6, 2017 -- People who make movies love suicide, almost as much as they adore murder, rape, combat and other forms of visually dramatic mayhem. The problem with the way movies handle suicide, and this film, “Christine,” is no exception, is that all the emphasis is on the person who commits suicide, about how smart they are and how they were wronged and misunderstood by others, how they are too good, gentle and kind to live in this cruel world.

By putting the emphasis on suicide in this way, it makes suicide more attractive to those so inclined, and it certainly removes the stigma from it. What is seldom shown is the effect a suicide has on the family and friends of the those who kill themselves. That terrible long term emotional damage and pain is largely internal. It is not as dramatic or as visually interesting as the brains and blood gushing out from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, so it gets little play in movies.

That being said, this particular movie, based on a very famous suicide, is actually quite interesting, from a journalistic point of view, since the shooter in this case was a journalist, and the suicide itself was directly related to journalism. That part of the story is pretty good. The rest of it – just another movie suicide story.

The main character in this story is Christine Chubbuck, brilliantly played by Rebecca Hall (“Transcendence”). She is a news reporter for a TV station in Sarasota, Florida in 1974 during the Watergate scandal. As the film opens, we see Christine practicing her interview techniques with an empty chair holding an imaginary President Richard Nixon at a table in the studio. She has dreams of being a reporter at a TV station in a major market.

Her emphasis on hard news (city, county and state government actions that affect the lives of many people) as opposed to “juicy” crime, accident and fire stories, leaves her at a disadvantage at the station, however. The station manager, Michael (forcefully played by Tracy Letts of “Elvis & Nixon”) wants more sensational news to boost flagging ratings. He even repeats that old news adage “if it bleeds it ledes (that is really how true newsmen spell leads).” He and Christine have frequent arguments about news coverage, which at one point becomes an angry shouting match.

When the station owner, Bob Andersen (John Cullum of “Kill Your Darlings”) arrives for a rare visit to Sarasota, looking for on-air talent for his TV station, WKRB in Baltimore, Christine decides to go all out on the hunt for more “juicy” news stories. She buys a police scanner and rushes to the scene of a residential fire, interviewing a burn victim. The story doesn't impress Michael, who points out she didn't have any footage of the smoldering ruins.

The fire story indicates that Christine is interested in human interest stories, the “softer” stories that don't pull in the big ratings. Things have changed since the 1970s. Nowadays it is common practice for network evening newscasts to conclude with upbeat human interest stories. Back in 1974, every real reporter wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein, doing the “hard” news stories.

While Christine is trying to get noticed and move to a more important TV station, she is worrying about a medical condition which requires the removal of one of her ovaries. She talks about being a virgin at age 30 and her desire to get married and have children. A date with a co-worker, George (Michael C. Hall of “Kill Your Darlings”) turns into a romantic disaster as she ends up being dragged into a group therapy meeting.

In the end, she is not promoted to the station in Baltimore and she doesn't find love, either, but she does become famous, making all the national newscasts, and providing fodder for at least a couple of movies. But did she die as a protest against bad journalism, or did she die because of her own personal demons? This movie emphasizes the journalistic reason, but the Wikipedia article about Christine has a different take on it.

Since I, as a journalist, am more interested in the journalistic side of the story, I am fine with the way the movie presents the facts. It occurred to me when watching this film that Christine was not really a very unusual person, and this movie would not exist if she hadn't made that final, terrible choice to sensationalize the end her life. Maybe that is the real tragedy of this story. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2017 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)