A true story, Changeling is a gripping film about how a mother’s search for her missing son led her deep into a hotbed of intrigue and police corruption.
It was in Los Angeles, 1928 that Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) found her son missing. The single mother had just returned from work to an empty house; in a heartbreaking coincidence, she had cancelled an outing she planned with her son on that day after an urgent call from work.
After a few months, the police called her and told her that her son is still alive. Hysterical with joy, she rushed to a highly publicised reunion, only to realise that the boy is not Walter (Gattlin Griffith).
The police refused to believe her. It didn’t help that the boy insisted that he was her son.
“Try him out for a couple of weeks,” Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) said.
Dazed, she reluctantly brought the boy home and discovered more that only made her surer.
“He’s not my son,” Christine said.
“Mrs Collins…” Jones replied in an exaggerated tone of patience.
“No, I don’t know why he’s saying that he is, but he’s not Walter and there’s been a mistake.”
“I thought we agreed to give him time to adjust.”
“He’s three inches shorter; I measured him on the chart.”
“Well, maybe your measurements are off. Look, I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for all of this.”
Christine snapped, “He’s circumcised and Walter isn’t.”
“Mrs. Collins, your son was missing for five months, for at least part of that time in the company of an unidentified drifter. Who knows what such a disturbed individual might have done. He could have had him circumcised. He could have…”
“…made him shorter?”
After she organised a press conference with the intention of going public with testimonies from her son’s dentist and teacher disproving the Los Angeles Police Department, Christine was promptly confined to a mental institution under Code 12, an admission classification given to patients deemed inconvenient by the police.
While she was incarcerated, another story was being unravelled—a story that once told would devastate her motivations for everything she has done.
With such drama, it is easy to dismiss this “a-true-event” film as a shadow of its actual history.
Biederman4 started a passionate polemic on Readers’ Reviews on NYTimes.com with: “I am not against drama, far from it. I just feel that the story of this movie was far too simplistic, and full of overblown paranoic extremes. It makes for higher drama to consider a police force forcing dozens of innocent women into a mental hospital where they are held under lock and key. It makes for higher drama when the mental hospital is little more than a brutalizing prison. But both of these are insulting to the intelligence of the moviegoer.”
Biederman4 is regrettably mistaken.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski took great pains to make the film as close to the real incident as possible. According to production notes, he not only used direct quotes and testimonies from the case files, but also inserted photocopied newspaper clippings every few pages in his script to remind the cast and crew that the story is true.
In fact, it was because he wanted this film to be a “true story” film, rather than a “based-on-a-true-story” film, that is why he was so obsessed with the veracity of his script.
Conversely, Straczynski only falters when it comes to portions of the film that are not entirely true. He created composite character Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan) who plays the sane-person-in-an-insane-place-who-suffers-for-her-friend stereotype to represent women who have suffered at that era, according to Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
Unfortunately, it is a one-dimensional stereotype participating in a scene with too many coincidences.
In general, the script is well written, albeit with a very slow beginning.
Straczynski’s method of storytelling is drawn out over a few episodic moments of Christine’s life, covering momentous themes, such as disempowerment of women, police corruption and brutality, asylums, and child violence.
Through Christine’s tale, Straczynski paints emotional dilemmas, such as hope, loss, and moving on.
This is very ambitious, but it is not ambition without finesse.
At 2 hours and 20 mins, the script discusses all themes fairly even if it risks tiring out the viewer, who might be more accustomed to a film with a singular episode centric to its script.
It is also clear that, in addition to dialogue, Straczynski pays attention to visual cues such as the falling of an axe to the falling of cigarette ash.
The poignancy of certain scenes, such as how the slowness and deliberateness of the laying out of missing childrens’ photographs was similar to how one would lay out cards to a gamble with high stakes, is exceedingly perceptible.
A good script is best complemented by excellent actors, as Changeling will show you.
Angelina Jolie is an unexpected choice for meek but silently strong Christine, but she adapted to her role very convincingly. Emoting fear, desperation, vulnerability, then resolute, Jolie quickly slips viewers straight into the shoes of Christine.
She should be wary, however, of falling into the trap of overemphasising the contrast between the vulnerabilities and quiet strength of Christine.
“F*** you and the horse you rode in on,” she said, quietly and defiantly, when asked if she is willing to retract her statements in the mental hospital.
It is always easier to portray a heroine who easily finds strength in the most difficult situation, but it might not always be true.
Eddie Alderson, who played Sanford Clark, a murderer’s accomplice, conveys a nuanced performance with the tone of his voice and facial expressions.
Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is a very good film that paints intriguing themes with the skilled expression of human emotions, fleshing out a true event that can be easily consumed by an audience unversed in history.
It will surely leave a marked impression on any viewer who has the capacity and stamina to ruminate on the themes discussed in a 2-and-a-half-hour film.
UrbanWire gives Changeling 4 out of 5 stars.
Opens: 15 Jan 2009
Movie Rating: NC16
Running Time: 142 mins
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore