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EVERY MOTHER'S NIGHTMARE

    “The Changeling” is a wonderful movie about a horrifying story.
    Dispensing with the usual disclaimers of “Based on...” or “Inspired by...” a screen note up front simply states “A true story.” So naturally I hared off to Google to see what I could find about the original story. After reading several accounts of the circumstances of a mother's search for her kidnapped son, I concluded that the movie does in fact adhere fairly closely to the history, while at the same time being, you know, a movie.
    Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, researched the case for a year in city and newspaper archives, and it's a compelling one, that held the nation's interest for almost a year before the Great Depression demanded attention. 
    In 1928 a single mother's nine-year old son was kidnapped in Los Angeles. After an initial police department brush-off, the LAPD spent several months going through the motions of a search, and eventually came up with the wrong kid. The police were so eager to have some positive publicity (the department was chockablock with corruption) that they railroaded the mother, Christine Collins, into accepting the young cuckoo as her Walter.
    When Christine repeatedly brought proof to them of their mistake – the kid was three inches shorter, and circumcised – the police captain, J.J. Jones, began hurling counterattacks, accusing Christine of being irresponsible and mentally incompetent.
    Eventually Jones had Christine committed to the LA County Hospital's Psychopathic Ward, where she was threatened with electroshock treatments if she refused to sign a retraction.
    Fortunately a crusading local Presbyterian minister, Gustav Briegleb, had befriended Christine and mounted a search for her.
    Meanwhile (and that does sound like a clumsy plot point, doesn't it?), another police detective searched the boonies in Riverside County on an immigration case, a kid who'd entered the country illegally from Canada. What he discovered was the horror of a serial killer, Gordon Northcott, who used his young cousin as a decoy when he kidnapped young boys all over Southern California and subsequently dismembered them.
    You will require no further details to see how the two cases intersect, but they do so with some surprising repercussions and ramifications, which, if you're interested, you could research on-line.
    Or you could see the movie, which I highly recommend.
    Thirty years ago, when he was pretty much identified with Dirty Harry, who knew that I would one day think that Clint Eastwood might be my favorite filmmaker. Directing “The Changeling” he builds on the strengths he showed in “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River,” which are mostly, I think, a talent for telling a powerful story quietly.
    “The Changeling” opens with an establishing shot of an impossibly tree-filled Los Angeles in 1928. The shot's in black and white, because that's what all the photos we've seen from that era are in, and only gradually do washes of color fade in until we're in a pale, pale world where Christina's lips are almost unbearably crimson.
    This trick has been used a lot recently, particularly in films based on graphic novels, such as “Sin City,” buy here it's subtle enough that it quickly ceases to be a gimmick and becomes the natural world that these people inhabit, as well as the natural world of our own memories.
    Because Eastwood performs an interesting feat with this movie: he seems to jump about from nightmare to nightmare, as memories sometimes do, but he manages to do this by unfolding the story he was given at a stately pace that is frequently somber but never pompous.
    Eastwood is a famously kind director, if that's the word I want. He's not a micro-director, the kind who choreographs eyebrows, and he tends to be satisfied with early takes, as long as they're the best. He must inspire his actors to an uncommon degree.
    His work with two of the main characters is an exercise in playing against type. Angelina Jolie, more famous for her performances in supermarket tabloids, has come a long way since she raided tombs as Lara Croft.
    As Christine Collins she turns in a subtly contoured performance that never shades over into melodrama. As a persecuted woman she is emotionally and verbally overwhelmed by the male bullies around her, but she quietly keeps insisting on her rightness until a streetwalker who's also in the psych ward on false police charges (a great cameo from Amy Ryan) teaches her what's really going on, and to stand up for herself.
    You don't exactly expect John Malkovich as the Reverend Briegleb to kick someone in the stomach, but Malkovich cannot entirely shake his villainous image. It's apparent from the outset that the Reverend is using Christine as a tool in his campaign against civic corruption; in fact he doesn't discard Christine, but continues his support for her by persuading crusading lawyer Sammy Hahn (Geoff Pierson) to take up her defense pro bono. Hahn's handling of Christine's case led to the overturning of imprisonment and psychiatric confinement under Code 12, a catch-all term that covered anyone who "dissented, protested, caused trouble or objected" to police methods.
    An important part of Eastwood's contribution to several of his movies has been his own music on the soundtrack. As a composer Eastwood will never equal Max Steiner or Elmer Bernstein, but he has a solid command of musical idiom, and a subtle ear for the kind of music that reinforces his vision.
    This may not be the best movie of the year, but it'll do until the best one comes along.