My thoughts on the film “Changeling” [***spoilers***]

Background :

You may ask “where is the science fiction in this film?”. Well, there is none. The film does, however have a connection with SF in that the script is written by the creator of the science fiction series “Babylon 5”, J. Michael Straczynski (jms), his first-ever script to be filmed for the big screen.

JMS has been interested in the case of Christine Collins for a while, but never got to tell the story, until a friend alerted alerted him to the fact that the archives on the case were to be destroyed. Before that could happen he studied the case in great detail and started writing the script.

This is one of the true stories that is rather incredible. The film is heavily based on newspaper articles, court room proceedings etc. A lot of the dialogue comes directly from these sources. In order to make a story viewable on film some shortcuts have to be done, but it feels like the essence of the story is there.

The film was presented at the Cannes Film festival and quite well received, apparently the reception in the US has been more mixed.

The script was published by Universal in connection with a possible Oscar nomination, and I have downloaded it, but did not read it prior to watching the film. I had heard enough to know the general story, but still some details were a bit of a surprise. Now may be the time to read the script.

The script has been transferred very well to a big screen experience that will stay with me for longer than most.

Some have complained that this could not have happened – it is just too incredible. This might be true if the story had been set in the present, but in 1928, where the story begins, the situation was quite different.

People involved :

Writer : J. Michael Straczynski

Director : Clint Eastwood

Christine Collins : Angelina Jolie

Rev. Briegleb : John Malkovic

and many more …

Summary of the story [***spoilers***] :

Christine Collins, a single (and working) mother in Los Angeles comes home one day and finds her son Walter, 9 years old, has disappeared.

The police is very slow to react and cannot find the boy. Six months later the police, in need of a success story, announces that they have found Walter and arranges a public meeting at the train station. When she is presented with the boy she realizes that this is not Walter and initially refuses to receive him. When pressured she accepts to bring him home on a trial basis.

When she uncovers more evidence that this is not her son and confronts the police she is ignored, harassed and finally arrested and sent to an asylum. She has become an “inconvenience” for the corrupt police and “needs to be eliminated”.

Through all this she has one strong ally in Reverend Briegleb, a radio preacher working to expose the corruption and help the victims, and the only authority figure believing in her.

About the same time the suspicion is growing that a mass murderer lives nearby. On a visit to the ranch of Gordon Stewart Northcott one of the officers catches a boy who appears to be just an illegal immigrant from Canada. But it turns out he has a terrible secret : Northcott has forced him to participate in a series of brutal murders on children from the neighbourhood. When this appears in the news Rev. Briegleb takes action and gets her out of the asylum.

What follows is the hunt for, and trial of Northcott, and revelations of the grave misconduct – by the corrupt LAPD Collins aided by Rev. Briegleb and a lawyer offering his services for free.

[***end spoilers***]

Acting and other “technical aspects:

Angelina Jolie’s acting was spot on – the desperate mother with persistence and inner strength, yet with some very good emotional moments.

The actor playing Gordon Northcott relayed the deranged psyche of the character so well that it was plain creepy to me. Kudos

Most of the other cast was well played as well, but I will give a special mention to the two boys, one playing the “illegal immigrant” – he looked plain scared in the scenes, and the final one who escaped from the ranch.

The use of somewhat washed out background is interesting, illustrating that this is a historical drama – somehow the images look like film footage from the 1920’s. Even the colours of the background has faded colours, while the persons in the foreground are in focus.

Themes in the film :

This is a story of a single person having an effect on society. Collins did not just accept the words and deeds of authority figures when they were wrong. She must been incredibly tough, in the sense of having the inner strength to withstand the pressure. It makes me wonder how many people really have that strength when it is so much easier to give in.

She made choices to go through with the resistance in spite of warnings from reasonable people like Rev Briegleb that the police top was ruthless in their corrupt ways, choosing to act and live with the consequences. Little did she know. The saying “never start a fight, but always finish it” was her wisdom given to her son, and she lived by it.

I appreciate the bitter irony of the corrupt police officer Jones accusing Collins of neglecting her obligations as a mother, knowing perfectly well that *he* was doing just that in *his* work. It must have been infuriating.

The scenes from the asylum are chilling, the way someone could be “eliminated” by declaring them “mentally unstable” and locking them up. In our modern days this may not happen regularly, but even in my time it was a known practise in communist countries – not so long ago. The perception (by men) in 1928 that women were “mentally unstable and illogical” made it very difficult to assert yourself as a woman.

I will call this “the psychiatrist’s game” the way everything she said and did was twisted by the “doctor” as Collins being either mentally unstable if she protested, or emotionally non-functional when she took things calmly. There was just no way out. Oh yes – there was a way out : telling everyone that you were wrong – or a liar – thereby absolving the wrong-doers of any blame.

One person can make a difference. True, but there are some requirements: you have to be able to rely on other people’s assistance, and more importantly: You must be the right person in the right place at the right time. This seems to be the case for Christine Collins. People were mortally afraid of the corrupt police force (with good reason) and fed up with the situation. On the other hand, they just needed a spark in order to burst into fire and protest. Christine Collins was that spark, she became a symbol.

Faith and hope. The Reverend symbolizes one kind of faith – the religious one, whereas Collins represents faith in yourself and other people. At end of the film we get a glimmer of hope.

Final thoughts:

I enjoyed the film, not in the sense of the actions in it, but in the telling of the story. I would recommend it. Go see it.

I will be getting the DVD when it comes out, and, maybe, make a comparative “study” of “Changeling” and “Babylon 5”. I initially see many common themes, but I will have to watch the film in more detail.

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