Changeling (2008)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 5; L- 2; S/N-1. Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes.

a stronghold in times of trouble.
Psalm 9:9

Crusading minister Dr. Gustave Briegleb champions the cause of wrongfully treated Christine Collins.

2008 Universal Studios

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4: 17b-19

Director Clint Eastwood has been on a roll as a director ever since Unforgiven. Although critics have been divided in their opinion of his latest film, people of faith will appreciate the depiction of a cler gyman in Changeling. Based on an almost unbelievable “true story” that riveted the public’s attention in Los Angeles in 1928, one of the film’s main characters is Presbyterian pastor Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich). He pastors St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, while Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) works as a Los Angeles telephone supervisor on roller skates with good prospects for promotion. Their paths converge during what must be the most fearful time for any parent, the kidnapping of her child.

Christine lives with her 9-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) in their modest bungalow, she being a single mother because years before her husband had been sent to prison. On a March day in 1928 she is called in to work another’s shift, which forces her to break her word that they would go to a movie together that night. She leaves Walter by himself for the day, telling him not to go outside. That evening when she returns home, he is nowhere to be found, but when she calls the police, they unfeelingly tell her that there is nothing they can do until he has been missing for 24 hours.

There is no ransom note, so for five months the anxious mother lives in limbo, until the day when the officer in charge of the case Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) calls to inform her that her son has been found in Illinois. He is being sent back by the authorities, but she must come up with the money for his train fare. On the day he is to arrive at Union Station Chief of Police James E. Davis (Colm Feore) and the Captain are on hand, as well as a large crowd of eager reporters, summoned by the police so that they can garner some good publicity after so many reports of corruption and incompetence.

The Department’s golden moment is threatened when Christine’s joy turns to dismay. The returned boy, claiming to be Walter, is not her son, she tells them. The flustered Captain Jones, keeping the reporters at a distance, tells her that she is distraught and confused. “Try him out for a couple of weeks,” he tells her. (How the audience howled at that line!) She complies, but she knows her son—this boy is 3 inches shorter than Walter, and, unlike her son, he has been circumcised (it was a vaccination in reality).

When Mrs. Collins points out all the discrepancies, and she is even backed by Walter’s teacher, the Captain and Chief of Police still refuse to believe her. She continues to plead with them that they resume the search for her son. To avoid any bad publicity for the Department, Jones has her arrested and thrown into the psychiatric ward of the LA General Hospital, where she endures a snake pit-like treatment. She learns from fellow patient Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan) that hers is standard treatment by the LAPD of any woman who arouses their ire, the police using a device called “Code 12” to remove from society anyone they deem troublesome—with no warrant required.

We first see the crusading minister Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) speaking to his people at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church about the kidnapping. Telling them that he hopes the police will find and return the boy, but that he doubts it because “the L.A. Police Force is the most, violent, corrupt, and incompetent police force this side of the Rocky Mountains.” The good pastor had locked horns with the corrupt police officials many times before. He is the one who rescues Mrs. Collins from the snake pit mental ward, exposing the head physician’s harsh treatment and collusion with the LAPD, so that the other hapless women, some of them broken in spirit by their ordeal, are also released from their false imprisonment. Dr. Briegleb also brings to her sympathetic lawyer S.S. Hahn (Geoff Pierson), who agrees to take on her suit against the LAPD and Capt. Jones pro bono.

How the fate of her son is eventually uncovered, thanks to the good work of honest policeman Det. Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), and the subsequent trial of the kidnapper Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) will make an indelible impression upon the viewer. Northcott, as chilling as Hannibal Lector, plays a sadistic game with the police and Mrs. Collins, admitting his guilt and then denying it, and leaving the distraught mother clinging to the faint hope that Walter might not have been one of the boys murdered by him (and his mother, a co-defendant in the trial). Dr. Briegleb counsels her to move on with her life, but she hopes to use the money awarded her in her suit against Capt. Jones to continue her search (money which she was never able to extract from the disgraced policeman).

It is good to see a Protestant minister portrayed so favorably in a film, Hollywood all too often using Protestant ministers as a symbol for pomposity or hypocrisy. (It is interesting to note that the real Dr. Briegleb lambasted the motion picture industry at a General Assembly meeting in 1921 for its demeaning portrayals of Protestant ministers in movies.) We have to go back to 1992 (A River Runs Through It) or 1955 (A Man called Peter) to find such a positive portrayal of a minister—I mention these two films because the clergyman in both was a Presbyterian. Both John Malkovich as the Rev. Briegleb and Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins turn in performances that sweep us along in a compelling story. That most of the details are true makes this all the better.

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers follow!

1) How does Capt. Jones apparently view Christine Collins? Do you think he understands women, and mothers in particular? Compare this to what an L.A. Times reporter wrote about Dr. Briegleb’s first sermon when, coming to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church two years earlier, the minister’s sermon was entitled “Three Wise Women and their Fool Male Friends: “ “‘The beautiful-but-dumb’ idea of womankind is not shared by Dr. Briegleb, who deprecates the attempt of the ‘lords of creation’ to belittle the intelligence and judgment of their sisters.” 2) How does Dr. Briegleb’s blend of humor with prophetic zeal, which we see in his first appearance in the pulpit, help put his message across?

3) How does Capt. Jones take advantage of Christine’s mental and emotional state when she insists that the returned boy is not hers? Have you ever been so stressed out that you were not sure of what was real?

4) How was the LAPD’s treatment of troublesome women a part of the sad era of male dominance? Given the background of most of the women prisoner/” patients,” who was to speak up for them?

5) How does Dr. Jonathan Steele twist Christine’s arguments and statements to justify his diagnosis that she is mentally “confused” ? How does fellow patient Carol Dexter become an agent of grace for Christine? And of course. Dr. Briegleb?

6) How did you feel when the all of Christine’s fellow patients were freed? See the already quoted Psalm 9 for a
good description of this.

7) How might the delay in searching for Walter contributed to his death?

8) How does kidnapper Gordon Northcott toy with Christine? What does the pastor advise her to do? Have you had to deal with the process of getting on with your life after some tragic experience? How did your faith and the church assist you in the process? Or did they?

9) The title comes from mythology: how does it apply to the boy? Young Arthur Hutchens, Jr. reportedly lied about his identity so that he could obtain a free trip to Hollywood and meet his cowboy hero Tom Mix. How did his childish prank contribute to the death of the real son?

10) Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski wrote his script after someone called to his attention some old city documents about to be burned that told the story of the wronged mother and her champion. What do you think of his evocation of this lost chapter in LA’s history? At what points do you see God at work in the film?