Changeling is a powerful film. It tells the forgotten story of a working-class woman who brought down the corrupt establishment of Los Angeles 80 years ago.
Angelina Jolie gives a strong, Oscar-worthy performance as Christine Collins, a single mother and one of the first female supervisors at the phone company who refuses to bow down to corrupt police when her son vanished without a trace in 1928.
Los Angeles on the brink of the Great Depression was an epitome of corruption. The police chief, James "Two Guns" Davis, had an officially sanctioned "gun squad" that terrorized opponents with impunity. When Collins' son Walter vanished, the L.A. police were embarrassed by their inability to find him. To squelch public criticism, they tried to convince Collins that a young drifter was her son. When Collins protested, police Captain J.J. Jones labeled her as histrionic and delusional and had her locked in a "psychopathic ward."
Luckily for Collins, her plight came to the attention of Gustav A. Briegleb, a Presbyterian minister and community organizer who regularly lambasted police corruption on his radio show. Briegleb helped Collins get a lawyer and tell her story. Although the movie does not mention it, Collins' case led to passage of a law that prohibited police from incarcerating people in psychiatric facilities absent due process.
Despite the compelling nature of Collins' story, it came close to being forgotten. The old records were about to be incinerated when a city worker telephoned screenwriter and former journalist J. Michael Straczynski and told him to come over and take a look. What Straczynski read that day was so compelling that he spent a year poring over city archives to reconstruct the case.
Straczynski has said that he wrote the script to honor Collins: A woman whose "simple question, `Where is my son?' brought down the entire L.A. city structure."
Changeling owes its aura of authenticity to Straczynski's meticulous research; verbatim quotes from the files and direct testimony from the public hearings are incorporated into the script.
The film's power also owes to its feminist message about a strong woman who refuses to be silenced by a corrupt establishment. The scenes from the public hospital's "psychopathic ward" provide a grim reminder of the horrors faced by women who were labeled as crazy for resisting male authority.
Clint Eastwood was a great choice of director to tell this story. The acting is uniformly excellent, the plot presses forward inexorably, and attention to detail is exhibited throughout. The location shots are masterful in transporting us back in time, as Collins (Jolie) hops on and off streetcars in a convincingly reconstructed 1920s Los Angeles.
Although the film closely parallels the actual history, viewers should be aware that Eastwood took some dramatic liberties, presumably to streamline the story and highlight its good-versus-evil message. We don't find out, for example, that the missing boy had a father who was serving time at Folsom Prison for robbery. Nor is the presentation of the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop murder case entirely accurate. Killer Gordon Stewart Northcott was indeed hanged at San Quentin, but the film does not mention that his mother was convicted of the Collins murder and spent 12 years in prison.
For those who are interested in additional background on that case, it is the topic of a just-published book by James Paul, Nothing is Strange with You: The Life and Crimes of Gordon Stewart Northcott. Former San Quentin warden Clinton P. Duffy also wrote about Northcott in his memoirs. Another source of information is the film's website, changelingmovie.net, which has reproductions of some of the actual L.A. Times news articles on the case.