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In this election year rife with politicians gone corrupt (Eliot Spitzer is one particularly fitting example) and the economy spiraling downward thanks in large part to behind-the-scenes greed, Changeling arrives as a strong statement about responsibility, accountability, and the all-important need for people to speak up in the face of wrong-doing.

L.A. Confidential

Jolie gives another solid portrayal of a strong woman facing an unbearable situation
Jolie gives another solid portrayal of a strong woman facing an unbearable situation

Clint Eastwood’s latest has no relation to the George C. Scott ghostly thriller entitled The Changeling from a couple decades ago. Instead, it’s a horrifying drama based on a true story that happened back in the late 1920s.

Responsibility is the key word here. It’s used early and often throughout Changeling.

The first use is by Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, Wanted), a loving single mother and a hard-working, dedicated switchboard supervisor at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. She artfully explains to her son, Walter, his father didn’t leave because he didn’t love him. He left the very same day Walter was born because a box arrived at the house and in the box was responsibility. For some, she explains, responsibility is the scariest thing in the world.

Called in to work an extra shift, she leaves her 9-year-old son at home, with instructions for the neighbors to check in on things off and on throughout the day.

When Christine returns home, her boy is nowhere to be found. He’s disappeared, without a trace.

Doing what any normal, concerned parent would do, she calls the police, only to be given the standard spiel about how they won’t do anything until the boy has been missing for more than 24 hours.

From there, Christine’s life unravels as those put in a position of authority and trust shirk their responsibilities and point blame at every corner other than their own.

And, yes, 1928 was an election year.

Hubris Exposed

Some five months later, Christine gets the news of her dreams: Walter’s been found alive and well. But when she goes to pick him up, she’s perplexed. The boy bears no resemblance to her son.

“You’re in shock and he’s changed,” the police resolutely tell her. “Take him home on a trial basis.”

Things only get worse from there.

The boy knows his street address, but he doesn’t know his schoolteacher’s name, he doesn’t know which desk is his, and the dentist can also confirm he’s not the same boy he’s cared for in the past.

Topping it all off, this boy who claims to be Walter is three inches shorter than her son and he’s been circumcised.

But the police and their official band of doctors and psychiatrists all testify there’s “a perfectly sound medical explanation for all of this.” Trauma can impact growth, they say, and, after five months of strange, unhappy experiences, it’s thoroughly understandable that the boy’s spine could have shrunk.

When Christine continues to assert the boy brought back to her is not her son, the police strong arm her and accuse her of shirking her responsibilities. She liked her freedom while the boy was gone, they say, and she wants to give up her child to the care of the state. Or maybe she’s simply delusional.

Civil Disobedience

Changeling is a fascinating — and draining — movie to watch. Jolie follows up her underappreciated work in A Mighty Heart with another solid portrayal of a strong woman facing an unbearable situation. Aiding her is John Malkovich (Empire of the Sun) as Gustav Briegleb, a pastor whose life’s mission is to expose corruption within the L.A. police department.

Together they try to break through the stonewalling actions of Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, Hitch). Through his absolute refusal to listen to reason, Jones makes Inspector Javert look like a wet noodle.

Even as he remains adamant about the police having successfully fulfilled their duties, the story turns into a harrowing tale of kidnapping, gruesome murder, and the overwhelming power of civil disobedience to right some wrongs.

Eastwood deftly recreates a world of outward innocence and grace. Streetcars amble through the streets of Los Angeles, buoyed by Eastwood’s jazzy, atmospheric score. But it’s also a world without television, the Internet, cell phones, and amber alerts; it’s a world where information can be hard to come by and serendipity plays a large role in the police business.

History Revisited

In this case, serendipity pays a visit in the form of a Canadian boy arrested for illegally working in the U.S. It seems like a tangential case at best, but it winds up revealing events so morbid and disgusting, the name of the town in which the events took place, Wineville, was eventually changed to Mira Loma in an effort to leave that horror in the past.

As Gustav rails against a police force driven by greed and self-interest, the police spin doctors retaliate by spinning madly out of control, unfounded assertions. Are they trying to wipe out crime or, as Gustav claims, wipe out the competition by their leaving their own trail of blood in the streets?

Ultimately, the case is made clear that, election year or otherwise, people have a responsibility to take a stand and to demand accountability.