IMDB #213 Changeling

Today we take a look at 2008's Changeling, "A true story" according to the screen right after the title appears. Join me as we find out how much "true story" credit we're willing to give a plot, how Clint Eastwood sort of thinks he's making a western all the time, and whether or not that kid is Angelina Jolie's son (obvious spoiler alert!- it totally isn't).

The Key Players:

This is our second entry with Clint Eastwood as director, but not our last- we'll get more glimpses of his bare-bones style in the director's with the Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven, and last year's Gran Torino.

Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski is most famous as the creator, showrunner and writer of the long-running "Babylon 5," but he's also a novelist and comic book author. Though he usually works in sci-fi, he researched the case of Christine Collins for an entire year after seeing an old court transcript.

Angelina Jolie, making her only countdown appearance (as of this writing), is of course the star of the Tomb Raider films, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Wanted. She won a Best Supporting Actress statue for Girl, Interrupted, and was nominated for leading actress for this film. She's also a frequent name in tabloids and such, and was of course in the modern classic of our times Hackers (shut up, that movie's awesome and you know it).

John Malkovich, also(?) making his only appearance in this project, is a storied actor and two-time Oscar nominee, with roles in projects like Dangerous Liasons, Empire Of The Sun, Of Mice And Men, and Being John Malkovich. He's also lately taken to producing artful teen comedies like Ghost World, Art School Confidential, Juno, and the upcoming Paper Towns (based on the excellent John Green YA Novel).

Rounding out the cast are Jeffrey Donovan (the spy-dude from "Burn Notice"!), recent Oscar nominee Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, "The Office"), and veritable "Hey, It's That Guy!" Denis O'Hare.

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The Story:

Single mother Christine Collins (Jolie) and her 9-year-old son Walter live a quiet, middle class existence in 1928 Los Angeles as we open. In short order, Christine is called into work unexpectedly, gets home late and finds Walter missing. She phones the police, who tell a shocked Christine that procedure is to wait 24 hours, since there are so many runaways that just come right back. The next day, they take her information, but can do little to find Walter, with nothing unusual reported in the neighborhood.

Months go by, and one day, a police captain (Donovan) visits Christine at work, to her trepidation. But it's good news- Walter is alive, says the cop, found in DeKalb, IL in the company of a drifter. When she goes to the train station, amidst a drum of reporters rounded up by the LAPD (happy to publicize doing something right during a time of constant accusations of corruption), she stops short- that isn't walter.

The captain assures her it is, that the boy's just changed during his ordeal- and "Walter" knows his name and home address. Somewhat mollified, Christine smiles unsteadily for the cameras and takes the boy home.

Soon she discovers that not only is this boy circumcized (Walter wasn't), but three inches shorter than her son. She goes to the police captain, who gets belligerent and shoos her out of the station. He sends a doctor the next day, who tries to convince Christine that severe shocks to the system can somehow cause a three inch shrinking (and as for the circumcision, well who knows what these derlict types may do to a child). After an article is published in the paper ridiculing her concerns, Christine goes on the offensive, getting written statements from Walter's dentist and teacher claiming this boy (who she's still been caring for) is not her son, and announcing her intention to file a civil suit to the press, with the help of a Presbyterian minister (Malkovich), who has made it a crusade to expose corruption and wrongdoing in the LAPD.

Of course, eager to avoid admitting any mistakes, the police captain has Christine involuntarily commited to a psych ward under "Code 12," which indicates a police request. The ward's resident Jack Nicholson type, a prostitute named Carol (Ryan), befriends Christine and points out all of the other "Code 12" women with little hope of getting out. As the minister tries to discover where she's gone, Christine tries to cope with an electro-shock happy doctr (O'Hare) and not lose hope...

The Artistry:

Changeling is a tense movie. As the trailer sort of blows the whole "not my son" angle, and the involuntary commitment, the entire beginning of the film is a slow buildup to things we know are coming. And the eventual revelations later are dosed out quickly, after long stretches of tensions. Eastwood paces his plot like a series of gunfights in a Western, I think- he's used to movies where the outcome can change in an instant, and the big finish of Changeling is frought with a constant interplay between one result and another (more on this in a second).

Jolie does an admirable job from scene to scene, making the transitions from histronics to insistence stubborness when needed. It's a subtle transformation- there's a little of the standard "fighting the good fight" when she's in the ward, but the rest of the movie she doesn't so much do the brave thing (i. e. taking on the entire LAPD) because she wants to, she does it because it's the only way to find her son. The rest of the cast mostly have time to hit the single notes their characters call for- Malkovich the helping hand, Ryan the mentor, Donovan the villain.

The gender polotics of this movie are an astounding example of what we were once capable of- as Jolie says in the extras, it's something you'd have trouble following along with if it dindn't happen in real life. Only eight years after it became illegal to deny women the vote, it was an easy job to railroad a single woman for an organization like the LAPD, and standards for involuntary commitment were frighteningly lax.

When the inevitable turnaround comes, it makes it all that much more satisfying. Changeling wasn't something I would've gone out and watched myself, but it's compelling in a much more personal way than I expected. It's a story, not a message movie, because the message in something this extremely backward and wrong just boils down to "What the f*ck!" the more you think about it.


While the minister starts setting things in motion to get Christine released, the news breaks that Walter was among the boys spotted at a ranch in Wineville, CA, where a man named Dennis Northcutt is now accused of kidnapping, molesting and killing up to twenty children.

This lends plenty of credence to Christine's now-publicized claims that she was given the wrong child, and public opinion turns decidedly in her favor as she is released and the LAPD picketed by protestors.

After the proceeding trials, which are neatly intercut, Northcutt is sentenced to hang after two years' imprisonment (though not for Walter's murder specifically, as his remains are not identified),the police captain resigns, the police chief is demoted, and the mayor declines to run again. Christine holds out hope for Walter, and still calls missing person departments across the country for news.

Two years go by, and Northcutt sends for Christine, claiming he wants to tell her the truth about her son to assuage his conscience. She goes, but Northcutt panics at the sight of her and stammers that he "can't lie" to her because it would be a sin- he doesn't admit to killing Walter, and Christine watches him hang (in a tense, drawn out to infinity scene) the next day.

Three years after that, a boy is found, and after a brief moment in which we don't know which boy it is, it turns out not to be Walter, but a boy who was confined at the ranch with him. He, Walter, and two other boys had made an escape attempt, and the boy had laid low for years for fear of reprisal or punishment. In his story he mentions that Walter came back to help him during the escape attempt, saving his life, but the fate of the other boys is unknown.

Christine tells the officer that broke the case five years before (the one good cop in the film) that she now has hope for Walter for the first time in years, and we end.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I'm actually pretty happy with it right here, on the fringes of the top 200- it probably could be higher without the manipulative ending (the least true-to-life part, as Christine Collins never visited Northcutt in prison and wouldn't have watched the hanging).

The Legacy:

Beyond the three Oscar (and nine BAFTA) nominations, it really hasn't been that long. It's yet to be seen what this will do for Jolie's career as a "serious" actress- her only upcoming project is the action movie Salt (and maybe Wanted 2 what?).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Actually very slim pickings on there, but there are a few interviews with Jolie and Eastwood that lay out the context a little bit:

Leftover Thoughts:

-Odd moment when Malkovich is describing the LAPD's corruption to Jolie and we see it depicted in flashbacks for some reason. We don't need that much proof, Eastwood. Whose perspective are we following here?

-Actual Tagline for this film: To Find Her Son, She Did What No One Else Dared. Does that not imply that she definitely finds her son?

-Donovan rocks a nice Irish accent in this film (much like in the recent season finale of "Burn Notice"). Real weird to see him as a villain, though.

-Differences between real life and film (Spoilers): Northcutt's mother actually was implicated in helping her son with his crimes, and at one point confessed to killing Walter Collins, recanting it later. Interesting that this was left out of the film- perhaps it clashed a little violent with Jolie's interpretation of the bonds of motherhood (end spoilers).

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