(2008) Through a tip from a friend, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski chanced upon the true story on which this mystery movie was based in a collection of old LAPD crime files. Director/producer Clint Eastwood, who also composed the original music, takes us back to Los Angeles in 1928 (a stretch of downtown reproduced comes alive with electric trams and Model T Fords) where on March 10th nine-year-old Walter Collins went missing from his home.
His single mother (the boy's father having left the day Walter was born), Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a supervisor of operators with Pacific Telephone, having had to fill in for someone on the Saturday she had promised to take her son to the movies, returns home to find he's gone. After scouring the neighborhood, she calls the police, only to be informed that a 24-hour waiting period must expire before an official missing-person's report can be filed.
The first few seconds of the opening scene appear in black-and-white, rapidly coloring, bringing the photographic past to life; but the principal characters (all light-skinned) are permanently either black or white in morals and motives.
Two weeks after Walter's disappearance, Rev Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) of St Paul's Presbyterian Church, addresses his congregation as well as a radio audience, denouncing Captain James E. Davis's police department as "violent, corrupt, incompetent," declaiming that "our protectors have become our brutalizers."
Meanwhile in DeKalb, Illinois, in July a drifter leaves behind a boy accompanying him as collateral for a meal at a diner, never returning with his wallet; in August, five months after Walter's absence, the child arrives in LA on a train, hailed to the press by juvenile-division Capt J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) as Walter Collins.
"That's not my son," exclaims Christine. "You're in shock," says Jones, "and he's changed." After the boy affirms that he's Walter, Jones insists: "No question that this is your son.… take him home on a trial basis…. He has nowhere else to go." In her home with the boy, regaining her ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, Christine demands: "Who are you?"
Back at the police station she confronts Capt Jones with obvious evidence of the boy's not being her son, accusing him of having used this ruse to give up looking for Walter: "Find my son before it's too late." Instead, Capt Jones sends Dr Earl W. Tarr, a psychologist, to visit with Christine in an effort to repudiate the facts of this boy's not being Walter because he's three inches shorter than Walter and unlike her son circumcised; Dr Tarr parades Christine and the child around the neighborhood for confirmation of his assertion.
"You're not my son!" she cries, begging the boy to take her side: "You and I both know the truth, don't we?"
Having learned about Mrs Collins's ordeal, Rev Briegleb invites Christine for a conference during which he explains that the LAPD under Chief Davis (Colm Feore) is unwilling to admit error; that Davis created his Gun Squad - given a no-tolerance authority to shoot citizens on sight based merely on suspicion - to wipe out criminal competition, not crime; that the LAPD does not tolerate dissent or embarrassment. He also offers encouragement and support if she wants to take her complaint further.
Obtaining letters from her dentist and Walter's teacher ("If that's your son," says Mrs Fox, "I'll eat my yardstick") that the child under her care is categorically not Walter, Christine takes her case before the press.
This new public impediment to squelching doubts about his handling of the case, undoing the earlier effort to shine a positive light on the police force, makes Capt Jones take a nasty turn against Christine, calling her "a derelict mother or nuts," accusing her of "shirking your responsibilities as a mother," finding the return of her child "an inconvenience," in short, denouncing her as "a liar and a troublemaker." Without a warrant, he orders her taken into custody for her own protection and incarcerated in the psychopathic ward at the psychiatric hospital for paranoia, suffering delusions, and self-destructive behavior.
Elsewhere detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) brings in a 15-year-old illegal alien from Canada, alone on a ranch near Wineville, to be deported. Pleading for a chance to tell his story to Ybarra, Sanford Clark, demonstrating both fear and regret, unravels a horrific tale of at least twenty kids killed on the ranch, all the doings of his cousin Gordon Stewart Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), who after axing the children threatened: "Finish 'em off or I'll finish you." When Sanford picks out boys from a collection of photos of missing children, including Walter Collins, Ybarra - frustrated with Capt Jones's saying homicide policy is "what I say it is" - takes the initiative and two other officers with him as well as Sanford to Northcott's ranch to investigate the teenager's claims. On September 20th in Vancouver, Canada, authorities arrest Northcott at his sister's for extradition back to California.
Back at the psychiatric ward in LA, Dr Jonathan Steele begins an interview with Christine - Are you saying that the police substituted a different child for your son? - that becomes an interrogation - Do you believe that the police are there to protect you or to persecute you? - questioning the apparent changes in her version of events: How long have you had this trouble of distinguishing fantasy from reality? Dr Steele offers her a document to sign, admitting she was wrong and the police were right, if she wants to go home; otherwise, she will be given medication and other treatment (such as electric shock) until she's better.
Another code-12 patient in the ward, Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan), having let Christine know what's what - advising her to act normal, even though the more you try to act sane, the more they'll think you're crazy - is an inmate for having filed a complaint against a night-club client, a cop trying to hit on her where she worked. Borrowing a line of defiance from Carol, Christine tells Dr Steele when he demands her signature or electric shock: "Fuck you and the horse you rode in on."
Following Christine's no-show for his radio program, Rev Briegleb broadcasts her travails with the LAPD; further worried about her disappearance, the clergyman confronts Capt Jones, who says she's in "protective custody following a mental breakdown." Storming the hospital with other civic leaders and a court order, Rev Briegleb rescues Christine just before the current is switched on.
With the police department's actions opened to public ridicule and possible law suits, Christine, having the support of Rev Briegleb and the best litigator in LA, S.S. Hahn (Geoff Pierson), offering his services pro bono, declares: "I didn't start this fight, but I'm going to finish it." The rest is the thunder of justice, ending with a murderer wiggling at the end of a rope, and for Christine a slender thread of hope.
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