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Changeling

Movie title: Changeling (2008)
Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, (Exec.) Geyer Kosinski, Robert Lorenz, (Exec.) Tim Moore, (Exec.) James Whitaker
Starring: Angelina Jolie “Christine Collins,” Jeffrey Donovan “J.J. Jones,” Gattlin Griffith “Walter Collins,” Michelle Martin “Sandy,” Jason Butler Harner “Gordon Northcott,” Michael Kelly “Detective Lester Ybarra,” Frank Wood “Ben Harris,” John Malkovich “Rev. Gustav Briegleb,” Colm Feore “Chief James E. Davis,” Devon Conti “Arthur Hutchins”
Genre: Drama/Thriller/Mystery
Summation: A mother's prayer for her kidnapped son to return home is answered, though it doesn't take long for her to suspect the boy who comes back is not hers.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Intense

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With both hands full of a big bucket of buttery popcorn and a large Dr. Pepper, I trucked into the theatre. The movie started just as I sat down. “Based on a true story,” the opening credits said. I had no doubt that the movie would be. What I had doubts about was whether or not the truth of the “true” story would get to the audience when going through the filter of artistic license during production. But as best as I am able to tell, the movie was spot-on.

The story, as portrayed on screen, was accurate and free from grievous exaggerations made in the name of entertainment. According to the film’s writer, J. Michael Straczynski, a former Los Angeles Times journalist, more than 90% of the dialogue in the movie was taken verbatim from the LA court transcripts, including the remark from Jeffrey Donovan (Captain Jones) to Angelina Jolie (Christine Collins), “Take the kid home on a trial basis.”

What a relief! It’s good to know that at least once in a while, the things we get emotional about on the silver screen are accurate and not pathos hooks thrown in simply to make a better story. With that concern put to rest, we move on to considering the development of the movie itself.

It starts off rather underwhelming. The acting is good, but it feels to be nothing more than a set-up for what is to come, and it is. On March 10, 1928, young Walter Collins goes missing. His mother goes to the police. Five months later, she is contacted by the police department and told that her boy has been found. Upon seeing him, she immediately realizes that the boy brought to her is not her son. Under virtual coercion, she takes him home for a time.

She tries to tell the police that they made a mistake, but she isn’t listened to. When she continues her pleading and begins to build a case against the LAPD and their refusal to admit a major mistake, she is committed to a psychiatric ward. But the ball set in motion by her before being committed puts some changes underway—changes that would shake the very foundation of the police force and the entire city.

The title “Changeling” sounds more like the title of a morose Sci-Fi cult classic where an alien morphs into different bodies to infiltrate human society, but in the context of the story of Christine and Walter Collins, it shouldn’t be too hard to see how the term “changeling” applies literally to one lost boy being essentially “swapped” by the authorities for another to suck up the wonderful wafers of public praise. But the story sounds almost too crazy to be real.

I mean, think about it. What kind of a stupid police force would insist that a boy is a mother’s son contrary to the protestations of the mother herself? It just doesn’t happen, one would think. It doesn’t, but it did. It was once the case that a woman opposing a man had little sway—much less so if that man happened to be a man of the law. It just wasn’t done. Women should be home making babies and churning the butter! We laugh about that notion now, but that was the way things were back then. Women were emotionally unstable, post-partum-depression-suffering, softcore nutcases who needed the guiding counsel of a good strong man. That was the way people thought.

The film’s portrayal of the 1920s and 30s is excellent. The scene where Jolie is being hosed down by the hospital staff in the mental ward shower wasn’t overdone. They did that back then. Everything, from the shine on the automobile bumpers to the signs, instruments, and clocks on the walls seemed authentic. What was less than authentic was the one-dimensional nature of the characters.

All the characters lacked depth. Captain J.J. Jones and his superiors are portrayed as the devil’s pets. They show no interest in anything other than upholding the reputation of the police force and don’t for a moment seem to care about justice. Things aren’t that simple. There are many sides to an individual, including corrupt individuals. Corruption isn’t born out of inexplicable pride or an unexplained lust for power, but from a combination of factors—factors that do not negate fundamentally “good” men doing bad things.

John Malkovich (Minister Gustav Briegleb) is a man of God and a herald’s voice against police corruption, but we don’t get to see so much as a glimpse of any other side of him. The psych ward doctor, Denis O’Hare (Dr. Jonathan Steele) is an obviously corrupt man who is completely owned by the police and a man who is not above physically striking his patients. What caused the doctor to tread this far off the professional course is not known, but his character seemed like yet another device to portray those blackened, evil souls in the law enforcement community.

Mrs. Collins herself, brilliantly played by Jolie, shows us nothing of who she was before or after the kidnapping of her son. Jason Butler Harner (Gordon Northcott), the boy-murdering “Chicken Coop Killer,” as he came to be known, was off the map. The character wasn’t poorly played, but why he did what he did was never made clear. He didn’t seem mentally ill or evil, more confused than anything else. But serial killers aren’t usually confused. They are methodical and feverishly driven to do what they do, and yet the Northcott we saw wasn’t. All the characters were shallow, as though they were intended only to fill their respective roles and nothing more.

Towards the end, the movie drags past what could have been a succinct stopping-point and into unneeded scenes, scenes intended to serve as tearjerkers that quite simply run too long. Courtroom battles, the carrying out of a judicial action, workplace affairs, and matters regarding other missing children prolong a very belabored ending.

Watching Changeling will make you angry and frustrated as a psychologically brutalized Collins tirelessly seeks to be heard, often to no avail. It’s a sad and moving story with plenty of intense moments that will bring out in viewers feelings of sadness, as well as rage. This is not Eastwood’s best film by any means, but overall, it’s a fairly good movie and certainly a story that no one should forget.

(JH)

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