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Laramie Movie Scope: Changeling

An amazing story of courage and determination

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 15, 2008 -- “Changeling,” based on a true story, is a testimony to a mother's love, courage and determination. It tells how a woman, aided by a crusading minister and attorney, and one good cop, manage to tear down a huge corrupt city administration and change some unjust laws. The film features great acting performances, smooth direction and top-quality production values. It is one of the year's best films. It is directed by Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”) and was written by J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5”).

The story begins on March 10, 1928 in Los Angeles, when Walter Collins (played by Gattlin Griffith), 9, son of telephone company supervisor Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie of “A Mighty Heart”) disappears from his home. After a search of the neighborhood, Christine calls the police, who show up after the customary 24-hour waiting period. An extensive search produces no leads. Five months later, Christine is told by police that her son has been found alive in Illinois, but when she meets the boy at the train station it turns out not be her son, but an imposter. Despite her denials, police insist the boy is her son. Police insist that Christine take care of the boy since he has nowhere else to go.

When Christine persists saying the boy is not hers and creates a stir in the press, she is promptly thrown in a psychiatric ward by police anxious to keep her out of the public eye. Inside the ward, she is befriended by another inmate, Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan of “Gone Baby Gone”) who advises her to fight the system. She is also befriended by a crusading minister, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich of “Burn After Reading”) who uses his pulpit and his radio show to demand Christine's release. One more ally appears in the form of a rare good cop in L.A. corrupt police department, Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly of “Invincible”). Defying orders from his superiors, Ybarra investigates a report of a serial murderer. Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson) tells of a series of murders that happened on a ranch at Wineville, Riverside County. He said he was forced to commit murders by his uncle, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner of “Next”). Clark identifies Walter Collins as one of the boys abducted by Northcott.

Police Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) sees the murder case as a way out of the Collins case. He can declare the case of the missing Walter Collins closed. He underestimates the resolve of Christine Collins, however. After her release from the mental hospital, she and the Rev. Briegleb bring pressure on the city council to investigate the matter of her son's disappearance, her involuntary incarceration and the incarceration of many other women, such as Carol Dexter, a prostitute put in a mental institution because she filed a complaint against one of her clients, a cop, who beat her. Eventually, a city council hearing was held into the matter. One of the city's best attorneys, S.S. Hahn (Geoffrey Pierson of “Get Smart”) agrees to help. The hearing shakes up city government and helps establish new laws governing involuntary incarceration of people in mental hospitals. The hearing and the trial of Gordon Northcott are intercut and shown in parallel.

The performances by Jolie, Malkovich, Jason Butler Harner and others are outstanding in this film. Also notable is Jeffrey Donovan of “Hitch,” who plays Police Capt. J.J. Jones, a nemisis of Christine Collins in the film. Jones does his best to get Christine to accept the imposter as her son and tries to shut her up when she refuses to agree. Geoffrey Pierson, who looks a bit like Randoph Scott, delivers some very powerful speeches during courtroom scenes as the crusading attorney S.S. Hahn. This film is spiked with strong emotional scenes in which downtrodden people rise up against their oppressors and vanguish them. The scene in which Christine Collins directly confronts Gordon Northcott is incredible. There is a very creepy scene where a cop wanders through a poorly-lit house, the home of a serial killer, which is loaded with knives and hatchets. I could have done with a few less cuts back and forth between the courtroom scenes and the city council hearing, but that is a minor quibble. The film looks great. It does a great job of recreating Los Angeles of the 1920s and 1930s. The story of a woman turning tragedy into something positive reminds me of another great film this year which had a similar theme, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Like that film, “Changeling” is one of the best films of 2008. It rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2008 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)