Changeling (2008)

Rated: R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.
Length: 140 minutes
Grade: AFAA=A
Budget: $55 million
Box Office: $128 million (38 U.S., 77 Intl., 13 DVD)

Written by: J. Michael Straczynski (Lots of TV including Babylon 5, Jeremiah, Murder She Wrote, New Twilight Zone, Captain Power, She-Ra, and He-Man)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby, Blood Work, Absolute Power, Unforgiven, Pale Rider, Firefox, and The Outlaw Josey Wales)
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, and Gattlin Griffith.

When a single mother in 1928 claims that the boy the LA police department has returned to her is not actually her kidnapped son, they refuse to believe her and they have her committed to a mental hospital for being a troublemaker. Luckily for her, a local pastor who has been fighting LA corruption for year on his radio broadcast helps bring her story out and eventually helps her sue them for their crimes.

Entertainment Value: A
Clint Eastwood = A. Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich almost always = A. This is fantastic, but it is fantastically painful to watch. It’s a true story with only very minor changes from reality, and trying to imagine living with the various evils in this movie is almost too much to bear. I was constantly frustrated by the events of this movie that happened in our own country just 80 years ago. To imagine how any of the major elements of this story could easily have turned out differently is baffling.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B, Violence F, Language D
There’s smoking, but I don’t grade down for that. One character is a prostitute, circumcision is discussed, and a woman is shown partially naked being sprayed with a hose upon being committed. Language is just over the edge of R, barely. But the thing that makes this movie certainly R rated is the violence. The other half of this dual-plot story is the historic Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, in which 20 or so young boys were kidnapped and brutally murdered, the scenes depicting this are truly horrible to watch. Even though everything is implied rather than shown, it’s still far too gruesome for any child to watch. Also, a hanging is shown in its entirety, women are hooked up to electric shock machines and tortured, and some men are executed at gunpoint.

Significant Content: A
Women must be treated with respect. The worst form of corruption is police and government corruption. Mental wards are frightening, especially when used to incarcerate sane people. Evil comes in a variety of forms. Religious people are capable of tremendous good and also tremendous evil. Authority figures and experts must always be carefully watched for bias and agenda-drivenness.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
As a rendering of these historical events, this once again shows Clint Eastwood to be one of the premiere filmmakers of this country. There were only two major discrepancies between reality and this movie (other than some likely elements of dramatic effect), and neither of them really changes anything substantial about the events. As art, this works far too well to arouse some very deep fears many of us have about our children, the police, and the mental health system in this country.

Discussion Questions:
~When you first see Reverend Briegleb preaching against the LAPD from the pulpit, what is your reaction? What do you think of his subsequent actions in this movie? Is there anyone in the big cities with his level of respect and influence?
~Comparing primarily Briegleb and Northcott, what do you think is the net impression this movie gives about religion?
~There are a variety of evils depicted in this movie. Which of them bother you the most? Specifically, who frightens you more: Northcott, Captain Jones, or Doctor Steele? What punishment do you think would have been appropriate for these three individuals?
~Each of the major evil people in this movie had accomplices who were surely in a position to do something to make things better. What do you think of their complicity? Specifically, what about the female nurses and female police doctor?
~How much of your infuriation with this movie comes from your belief that it is impossible to imagine things like this happening today in America? Do you think that anyone in this country perceives its institutions the way they are portrayed in this movie? Consider black residents of gang areas, illegal immigrants, and people who are mentally ill for starters.
~Some of this movie deals with epistemology, how we know what we know. Why do you think so many people were willing to doubt a mother’s assertion that this was not her boy? How might that have been related to a view of women as frail, inept, inferior beings?
~Are you generally trusting of the police and that justice will prevail or are you scared of them?
~Are you generally trusting of the mental health system in this country or are you scared of it?
~If someone accused you of being insane, how would you disprove them? If a sane person was locked up against her will, would it be normal or abnormal to react violently to this treatment?
~A key event in this movie was the massive public protest of the LAPD’s treatment of Christine Collins. What if they hadn’t turned out? Would you have joined them? What sort of injustice would be required for you to take off work to participate in a protest at city hall? Should the Christian be more or less willing to participate in such things?
~Why do you think this movie made twice as much money overseas as here in the US, where these events actually took place?

Overall Grade: A
Painful, more painful, and then terrifying to watch. But definitely worth it, if only because it reminds us how much better things are today…for the most part. Three Academy nominations, including Jolie for best lead actress, which she should have beaten Kate Winslet for The Reader, although both should have been beaten by Meryl Streep in Doubt.

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