Television news probably peaked in the early 1970s. It had just spent a robust decade covering the Vietnam War, several assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, and recurring turmoil verging on a total breakdown of the system. Its relentless coverage of the Watergate investigation, beginning in 1972, was just a victory lap.
But as seen in Antonio Campos’s grim, timely, but not quite fully thought through “Christine,” signs of trouble came from the fringes, seen in little local outlets like WXLT, in Sarasota, Fla. In 1974, one of the station’s reporters, after suffering a series of professional and personal frustrations, did something truly awful — even by today’s standards — live on the air. It became symbolic of the race to the lowest common denominator satirized in the 1976 film “Network” (whose Oscar-winning screenplay Paddy Chayefsky presciently wrote before the Sarasota incident).
The film’s amorphousness has nothing to do with Rebecca Hall’s exacting performance (she uses her 5-feet-10-inch frame to good gawky effect) as Christine Chubbuck, the troubled reporter of the title. Perhaps she renders Chubbuck’s strangeness too well, as it veers at times into creepiness, making her more of a case study than a sympathetic character. Though Chubbuck could be seen as a pioneer of the burgeoning feminist movement, an unmarried woman struggling with new ideas in a stolidly patriarchal profession, she has more to contend with than just sexism. A victim of chronic depression, she lives with her mother, is a virgin, and socially feckless. She deserves better than to be the butt of cheap laughs because she likes John Denver and has a framed poster of the Carpenters on her wall (a “Christine” CD would be worst soundtrack recording of the year).
Come to think of it, who wouldn’t be depressed in the 1970s, especially if it was as tasteless and dismal as Campos depicts it? This is a world in which everything seems to be taking place in Rupert Pupkin’s basement. It is the most dispiriting vision of the void of that era’s tackiness since Paul Schrader’s “Auto Focus” (2002). Campos really doesn’t need to tack on such heavy-handed irony as the scene near the end of a disconsolate woman eating ice cream and singing along with the theme song of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Directed by Antonio Campos. Written by Craig Shilowich. Starring Rebecca Hall, Tracy Letts, Michael C. Hall, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron. At Kendall Square. 120 minutes. Rated R (a scene of disturbing violence and for language including some sexual references).