Director: Clint Eastwood, 2008.
Imagine leaving your child home alone and when you come home from work find he is gone. What a dreadful sinking feeling. Now imagine that he is found and brought home to you. But at the moment of reunion you see he is not your son. He is a changeling. That would be almost as bad. But then consider the authorities telling you that you are wrong. You might feel powerless and defeated. That is the heart of Eastwood's film here.
Clint has directed some powerhouse films over the last decade, including Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby, his Iwo Jima pair (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), Mystic River, and last year's terrific Gran Torino. Changeling seems a little lighter tan these despite the gravity of the ploth, its emotional story and strong acting from Jolie, who garnered an Oscar nomination for this role. Eastwood's own score adds to the mood, but it is the length and pacing that is a problem. It is a shade too long and it starts to ebb in the last half-hour. Yet it is still a good movie.
Set in Los Angeles in 1928, this is based on the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, Wanted). She is a roller-skating supervisor at the local telephone exchange and a single mother to 9-year-old Walter (Gattlin Griffith). When she returns home from an unexpected Saturday of overtime, her son has vanished without a trace. No one has seen him. The police are no help, as they tell her she needs to wait to report a missing child. Eventually they file a report and put out an APB for him, but to no avail. When they come to her workplace 5 months later to tell her Walter has been found in Illinois, she is overcome with emotion. The problem is, that the boy who returns by train, courtesy of the LAPD, is not Walter. He is shorter and has other physical differences. But to admit their error would be an embarrassment so the police persuade Christine to accept this changeling as her son; after all, she hasn't seen Walter in 5 months and might have forgotten what he looks like.
As the truth hits home that the police have closed the case as her missing "son" has been found, Christine politely starts to push back against the system. On her side is Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), Pastor of the St. Paul Presbyterian Church. In that day, the LAPD was notorious for incompetence, violence and corruption. They were, in some cases, worse than the criminals they were trying to catch. With a radio show and a pulpit, Briegleb becomes a thorn in the LAPD flesh.
Briegleb's mission, to fight the police corruption, harkens back to the prophets of the Old Testament. Theirs was a call for social justice, exposing all manner of injustice. They were God's spokesmen in the fight against evil and corruption that was often rampant, even amongst the Israelites (Isa. 1:21-27), God's chosen nation (Lev. 26:12; 2 Sam. 7:23). They decried injustice and called out for repentance, a turning back to God's laws and the way of equity and justice. Micah proclaimed what God required of man: "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic. 6:8). Like Briegleb, though, the prophets were often ignored, sometimes punished (1 Kings 19:10), but nevertheless used by God for his purposes.
But the film is centered on Christine and is anchored by Jolie's performance, not Briegleb. As she deals with her pain, she becomes visibly tougher. In one scene she reflects back, "I used to tell Walter, 'Never start a fight . . . but always finish it.' I didn't start this fight . . . but by God, I'm going to finish it." She will fight to get her son back.
Christine Collins' message is a lesson for us. She is polite to those in authority and will not start a fight with them. Jesus told his followers in his Sermon on the Mount, "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other one also" (Matt. 5:39). A number of times Christine figuratively turns the other cheek. But when forced into the corner, with no other options left, she has to fight for what she believes in -- her son. She counts the cost, understands intellectually the price she might pay, but undertakes the mission. We, too, must do that. At times we will be called on to count the cost and go out into the fray, expecting that we will pay a heavy price. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought back against the Nazis by continuing to preach the gospel, and he paid the price with his life. Some fights are necessary to finish.
Christine's gritty determination fuels her relentless quest for the truth and for her son. But this puts her at odds with the police, who still want her to accept the changeling as Walter, which she insists she will not do. Using intimidation tactics, they accuse her of hysteria and worse, and lock her in a mental asylum. The corruption and perversion of power is pervasive. The scenes in the mental hospital are among the most wrenching, but underscore Christine's resolve, and highlight Jolie's acting strength. (We recall that she won her Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1999 role of an asylum inmate in Girl Interrupted; here she is "Mother Interrupted," and lost this Oscar to Kate Winslett for The Reader.)
Changeling paints a picture of the profound power of a mother's love. Mothers have an innate protective nature when it comes to their offspring, more so even than fathers. They will do almost anything to shield their young from danger. Jesus shows this very same attitude, demonstrating that God has both feminine as well as masculine qualities, when he cried out in his last days on earth, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing" (Matt. 23:37). The love of God knows no gender boundaries.
A final biblical parallel springs to mind from the way Christine was treated by the police. Harrassed and helpless, they called her essentially a liar or a lunatic. This is so similar to the famous lines from C.S. Lewis' classic book, "Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.Lewis said you can only call Jesus liar, lunatic or Lord. Our choices are limited. Those who have tasted have found him to be the one true Lord.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs