Changeling tells a true story that, in today's day and age, is almost impossible to fathom. Something like this could only happen in a more innocent era. We have become far too cynical for this to ever happen now, and even if someone tried, there would be too many places to blow the whistle. The movie is about a woman who lived in a time when there were fewer places to go for help, when the public automatically assumed the honesty of police, of doctors, and of politicians, all of whom were supposedly beyond reproach. If we are, in fact, more cynical now, it's because of situations like the one depicted here. We've learned some hard lessons, often on the backs of ordinary people.
Set in 1920's L.A., the film stars Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, a single mother who adores her young son Walter. She leaves him home alone one day after unexpectedly being called into work, and when she returns, Walter is gone. There is no sign of where he might be, no indication of struggle. Christine calls the police. They won't even look into his disappearance for 24 hours. Besides, they tell her, most kids who go missing return by the next day. Walter doesn't. Weeks go by, and still no sign of him. Five months later, LAPD Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) contacts Christine and tells her that Walter has been found all the way in Dekalb, Illinois. He arranges for them to be reunited at the train station - in full view of the same reporters who have been chronicling the department's recent misconduct. Jones wants a positive photo op even more than he wants to reunite a parent and child.
The boy who gets off that train is not Walter. He is three inches shorter, for one thing. Christine insists they have the wrong kid. Jones makes her briefly doubt herself and agree to take the child home. He brings in doctors and psychologists, all of whom offer shaky claims about how the five month separation could have caused Christine to not recognize her own son. It is her fault, they say. When she starts to insist more loudly that the LAPD is pulling a fast one, Jones has her committed to a mental institution where no one can hear her pleas. John Malkovich plays Gustav Briegleb, a local reverend whose weekly radio address is devoted to calling out the LAPD for its sins. He fights side-by-side with Christine as she looks for ways to take on a corrupt system and searches for the true whereabouts of Walter.
Now is a good time to say again that this extraordinary story is true. Can you imagine someone trying to get away with that today? For starters, the press would never swallow such a lie. If anything, they go too far in the opposite direction, trying to disprove things that are actually true. A simple DNA test would easily and conclusively prove that the faux Walter is not Christine's son. If a DNA test wasn't available, a quick check of the boy's MySpace page would do the same thing. A hundred friends and classmates would step forward to deny the imposter. Stacks of pictures and home videos would perfectly document the differences in physicality, speech, and temperament. Thorough medical records would record vast discrepancies, things impossible to falsify. The 1920's were a different time, of course, and it was easier to get people to play along or buy a bill of goods wholesale.
This is what I liked most about Changeling. Yes, I liked all the "normal" things you'd enjoy about a well-made drama - the eloquent screenplay, the masterful direction, the fine performances - but what hooked me above all else was the chance to peer into a different era where trust went a lot further than it does today. Consider the kid who claims to be Walter. Why does he go along with the ruse, knowing full well that he is not who he claims to be? Because the cops tell him to. They are authority figures, he is an abandoned child, and they could do all sorts of bad things to him if he puts up a fight. So he just trusts them when they say it's for the best.
And what of the doctors and shrinks who play along? Today, they would fear losing their licenses by cooperating with such a scam. The public is savvier today. With self-help books, and WebMD, and Oprah, we are all less ignorant of medicine and psychiatry than previous generations. There would be no reason to simply take a professional's word without scientific proof. We couldn't swallow such lies if they tried to literally ram them down our throats. Changeling (directed by Clint Eastwood) submerges us in its era, forcing us to confront how society has changed and also how lucky we are not to be unduly under the thumb of institutions. There are myriad ways to fight the power. Christine Collins didn't have the luxury of options. She had to claw her way out.
With all the tabloid headlines and appearances in mindless celebrity magazines, it's easy to forget what a skilled actress Angelina Jolie is. Changeling marks her second recent role as someone who is grieving, the other being her portrayal of Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. A lot of actors have one bag of tricks. When they play an emotion, they play it the same way from one movie to the next. What bowled me over about Jolie was that her grief in A Mighty Heart is distinctly different than her grieving in Changeling. She doesn't just cry and wail; she invents a form of crying and wailing that is specific to each character. I completely believed the actress as Christine Collins - not just as a distraught woman but also as a crusader who uses that grief to stand up for what she knows is right, no matter the cost. It'll be interesting to see if the Academy stiffs Jolie the way they did for Heart.
I think that Changeling has a few moments that are a bit overdone; the actors are uniformly good but occasionally lapse into the kind of overly-theatrical acting that was par for the course in movies of the period. (Captain Jones sometimes sounds like he's channeling Jimmy Cagney.) That aside, the film is nothing less than riveting. Christine Collins' story is remarkable, not just because of the ordeal she had to navigate but because it reveals a kind of moral corruption that relied on the blatant abuse of public trust. There's still evil in the world, but not this exact kind because no one could get away with it anymore. We've all learned that anyone, no matter how prominent, can blatantly abuse our trust.
There is much, much more worth saying about Changeling, but this is what ultimately hooked me the most, and so I'll just leave it at that.
( 1/2 out of four)
Changeling is rated R for violent and disturbing content, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat