Netflix 12: “Changeling”

June 23, 2009



We watched “Changeling,” a 2008 film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. This film which, I gather from independent reading, sticks fairly close to the facts, recounts the story of a 1928 kidnapping case in Los Angeles. Walter Collins, a nine year old boy, disappeared from his home and was never seen again. A boy found several months later in DeKalb, Illinois, claimed to be Walter Collins, but Walter’s mother, Christine (played by Jolie), told police the boy was not her son. The LAPD – which at the time was ridden with scandal and under public pressure to solve the Collins case — insisted that the boy was Walter and that the mother was delusional. Eventually, under a prerogative the police had at the time, police Capt. J.J. Jones (played by Jeffrey Donovan) had the woman committed to the psychiatric wing of a Los Angeles Hospital. A seemingly unrelated immigration case led police to Gordon Norcott (played by Jason Butler Harner), a murderous Canadian whose arrest figured in the somewhat incomplete resolution of the complicated case.



This film is two hours and 22 minutes long — and that’s after two scenes were cut from the final version. It is arresting, however, even for that long — and that’s due at least in part to the awareness that the bizarre events being portrayed on the screen actually occurred.

Angelina Jolie was nominated for a “best actress” Oscar for this role, but there were equally powerful performances by Harner and Donovan. Harner appears on the screen for the first time in an inocuous situation — his car has overheated — and he has no known  connection to the story, but he plays that scene in such a way that it’s immediately apparent that there is something very wrong with him. The more we see of him, the more he makes our skin crawl.



Jeffrey Donovan is effective as the bullheaded and myopic police captain. His behavior so defies simple logic that he would have fit in well at the trial of the Knave of Hearts. Donovan’s unyielding demeanor makes the character the personification of self-justifying bureaucracy. Malkovich presents a study of the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian minister who campaigned against political corruption and other things he regarded as immoral, and who provided Christine Collins with support that turned out to be critical to her own well being. Briegleb is portrayed here as a radio preacher, but he was not a broadcaster in real life. He was also known to publicly express his anti-Semitism. However, this film sets out to tell the story of Christine Collins, not of Gustav Briegleb, and other sources suggest that Malkovich correctly plays the minister as tough and single-minded.

There are some upsetting albeit not overly graphic scenes involving murder and an execution, but these things are worth facing in a film that reminds us of how much damage can be inflicted on individual lives by corrupted public institutions.




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