Tuesday, November 4, 2008


My wife and I attend 15-20 movies each year. Some are dreadful. Some are entertaining for the moment but ultimately forgettable. A few are memorable. In the last two years, three stand out: Jodie Foster's "The Brave One"; “Apocalypto,” produced by Mel Gibson; and “Changeling,” produced by Clint Eastwood.

“Changeling” presents the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie). A few months after her 12-year-old son Walter is kidnapped, the Los Angeles Police Department brings Christine a boy who claims to be Walter. To get favorable publicity for solving the case, they make sure reporters are available to record the homecoming. Even though Christine protests that the boy is not her son, cops coerce her into taking him home for a “tryout.” (In 1928, when this story happened, there were no DNA tests to establish paternity.)

Christine continues to insist to detectives that the changeling is not her son and her protests become more forceful with each meeting. The local newspapers get wind of her doubts about the boy and begin to publish articles heaping derision on police. It is at this time that Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) contacts Christine about appearing on his radio broadcast. For several years, Briegleb has used his popular show to expose the rot inside LAPD.

Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) has staked his career on this case. Like he’s done on other occasions, Jones has Christine committed to the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles General Hospital when she persists in denying that the boy is Walter. While Jones thinks this will sweep the problem under the rug, it in fact does just the opposite. Briegleb goads the media into a long-overdue examination of police practices and thus begins the downfall of Jones and other high-raking police officials.

As the political drama is unfolding, a guilt-racked Canadian teenage boy named Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson) is picked up by police on illegal immigration charges. The boy tells detectives a horrific story of a madman in the desert town of Wineville who has been kidnapping and murdering young boys for years. According to Clark, one of the victims was Walter Collins. Clark's story is so riveting that the detective questioning the boy ignores pressure from his superiors and takes Clark out to the chicken farm where the killings allegedly occurred. As bodies begin to surface, cops realize that they can no longer cover up the story. At about the time Christine is released from the psycho ward the imposter admits that he lied about being Walter Collins because he wanted to come to California and meet actor Tom Mix.

The man who lived at the chicken farm, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), has fled to Canada but is quickly tracked down. A serial killer, he is convicted of murdering three boys and is suspected of more than a dozen others.

Christine Collins is vindicated and most of the brass at LAPD are fired or demoted. But Christine refuses to believe that her son is dead since his body was never identified among those found at the chicken farm. She meets with Northcott the day before he is hanged and attempts to get him to tell her whether he killed Walter. Northcott refuses.

In this movie, Jolie is not the hottie that many viewers expect. Instead, she begins the film as a decent-looking working woman but as the stress of her ordeal continues she becomes haggard and plain. In fact, there is absolutely no romance in the movie which is a definite plus.

In an era when serial killers were nowhere to be found on the radar chart of criminalists, Jason Butler Harner steals the show as Gordon Northcott. At times charming, weird, manipulative, psychotic, Harner plays all these roles to perfection. The hanging scene is the most realistic I’ve seen in a movie. Instead of the stoic inmate who quips with guards, Northcott grovels and begs and cries and whines (“You’re going too fast,” he shouts to the guards as he is being dragged up the steps to the gallows.) The warden and guards are grim-faced bureaucrats just doing their job. Even so, the viewer finds no sympathy for the condemned man.

Another sparkling performance is that of Eddie Alderson. His angst at having been forced to participate in the ax-murders and body-burying is palpable. His reason for confessing (“I don’t want to go to Hell”) is a genuine response for a country boy of the era. Unfortunately, he was also convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

To be honest, I wasn’t sold on John Malkovich as a minister. He’s too intimidating and sinister for a good guy. And some of the scenes in the psycho ward were a little hokie.

But overall, this is one of the best films I’ve seen in several years. The writer, J. Michael Stracynski, has done an admirable job of researching the case and making the era come to life. The depth of character displayed in Christine Collins strikes the viewer as real. She progresses from a typical mom to a formidable yet reluctant fighter.

I generally despise the Hollywood crowd. I think they’re spoiled, incestuous, thoroughly corrupt, arrogant, and out of touch with ordinary people. I also tend to think that many movies are made to indoctrinate the unwashed into believing the warped views of the stars.

Despite this, occasionally a diamond will sparkle in the cesspool.

“Changeling” shines.


Unknown said...

Michelle McKee over at In Cold Blog is holding forth that Gordon and his mother were innocent and the whole thing was a hoax. I was wondering what you think of those comments. I have read about this case on several other sites, and on Newspaperarchives.com -- and feel that she is out in left field on this one. What say you?

Robert A. Waters said...


I also searched newspapers of the era and concluded that Northcott was guilty of at least one and probably several murders. But one thing is certain, there's a lot more to the story than the movie depicts.


Unknown said...

True, from what I've read. But a movie's a movie's a movie. No matter how factual something claims to be, you'd have to be daft to expect it to be all inclusive.