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Children Left Behind 

I saw director Clint Eastwood's Changeling on the afternoon that America was choosing Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. As I watched, I wondered if the sentiments that produced this movie were not a reflection of the dark passage from which a majority of us hope we are about to emerge. American cinema has been uncharacteristically somber for some time now with despairing films like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men dominating awards and even popular material like The Dark Knight and X-Files: I Want to Believe addressing issues about the intractability of the evil in our midst. Historians may ultimately judge that the greatest of the sins perpetrated by the administration of George W. Bush was its determination to politicize all decision-making. Karl Rove advised the president to "feed the base," and so political advantage, not the common interest, drove policy making. Self-perpetuation trumped all. I don't maintain that Eastwood and his collaborators had these issues directly in mind, but the story they tell underscores the horrors that emerge when public institutions care more for their image than for the obligation to serve.

An assertively factual account of a true event written for the screen by J. Michael Straczynski, Changeling is the story of a woman ill-served by the very forces created to assist her in her hour of need. In 1928 Los Angeles, single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is forced to work a Saturday shift at her job as a telephone operator supervisor. Without an available alternative, she leaves her 9-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) home alone for the day. When she returns from work, Walter is nowhere to be found, and the L.A. Police Department's indifferent response to her panic is a harbinger of worse things to come.

Coincident with Walter's disappearance, the L.A.P.D. is being widely criticized for incompetence, corruption and brutality. Thus, Police Chief James Davis (Colm Feore) and juvenile division Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) see a significant public relations opportunity when, several months later, they find an abandoned boy in DeKalb, Ill., and return the child, who claims to be Walter Collins, to Christine's care. Only the boy isn't Walter, as Christine declares immediately. He is significantly shorter and has been circumcised, whereas Walter was not. Christine takes the boy into her home, but she gathers other evidence that the police have brought her the wrong child and, obviously more distressing to a mother, that her son is still missing, still in some kind of unspecified danger. Walter's dental records do not match with those of the changeling child. Walter's former teachers and classmates do not recognize the new boy in their school.

But instead of correcting their mistake, the police compound it by painting Christine as an unfit mother no longer willing to care for her child. When she dares to go public with her complaints, they throw her into a vile mental facility where she is humiliated by the chief of psychiatry (Denis O'Hare), who is obviously no more than a police stooge, and cruelly abused by sadistic staff members. The hellish experiences that Christine is forced to endure are exacerbated by the way authority figures turn her very reasonableness against her at every turn. Because they care far more about public perception than public mission, they are determined to avoid the embarrassment of admitting they have made a mistake.

The Los Angeles of sunshine and silky air is not in evidence in this film. Save for Jolie's lipstick, the world of Changeling is one of washed out colors and incessant rain. Christine seems, appropriately, perpetually cold, her head covered in the snug woman's hat of the era. She is often dressed in a long overcoat, her hands hidden in gloves. The opposite of Tinseltown, this Los Angeles is a gray place of deep shadows and lurking menace. It's a place where those in power have clear objectives but no calling other than survival, a place where the privileged hold forth and no one listens to those in need.

Changeling loses some of its focus and narrative steam once crusading preacher Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) secures Christine's release and an uncompromised police detective (Michael Kelly) uncovers the activities of a serial killer (chillingly played by Jason Butler Harner). But on the whole, Changeling is a striking companion to Eastwood's earlier dark works Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, in its core examination of the helplessness of the individual before the vice of rogue institutions — as powerful as something imagined by Franz Kafka.

click to enlarge Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) tries to help Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) find her missing child after the police declare the case closed. - 2008 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
  • 2008 Universal Studios
  • Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) tries to help Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) find her missing child after the police declare the case closed.
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