Over the years, many movies have been made that were “based on a true story.” At the beginning of Changeling, I noticed something different: A title card read simply “A True Story.”
The movie’s writer, J. Michael Straczynski, who was present at the Variety screening I attended, explained, “Ninety-five percent of the dialogue was taken directly from trial transcripts, newspaper clippings and other documents. I had to annotate my script and submit it with clippings.”
The clippings he was talking about are about the real-life case Changeling depicts. On Saturday, March 10, 1928, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) came home from work to find her son missing. Four months later, the LAPD returned a boy whom Collins instantly declared was not her son. Despite the boy being shorter and having different teeth from the real Walter Collins, corrupt Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) pressured her into taking the boy into her home and even sent out a doctor to “officially” determine the boy was Collins’s son. When Collins kept insisting the child was not Walter, Captain Jones threw her into a mental hospital (or in his words, “She wasn’t thrown. She was escorted.”).
A fluke tip eventually led the police to an isolated farm where they found a boy, Sanford Clark, who confessed that his cousin had kidnapped and killed as many as twenty boys, including Walter Collins. Clark had been forced by his cousin, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), to act as an accomplice to lure the children into the man’s truck.
Once the police validated this claim (though Walter’s remains were never found), Collins was released from the psychiatric hospital then sued the city and the LAPD. She became an unexpected heroine when the trial resulted in Jones’ suspension, the forced resignation of Chief of Police James Davis (Colm Feore) and a law that required a warrant in order to commit a person to a mental institution.
Portraying a woman who went through so much grief, Jolie took the understated route and came through beautifully. She’s famous for her lips but in Changeling, it’s her eyes that are striking. They registered panic, sorrow, compassion and hope without Jolie saying a word sometimes. She suppressed her contemporary, kick-ass persona to convincingly play a woman with modest 1920s manners.
The movie has many other standout performances, especially Harner, who was creepiest when smiling, and Eddie Alderson as Clark. I wondered what Alderson could’ve possibly tapped into in his young life in order to portray such devastation during his confession scene.
The film is slightly too long at 2.5 hours, making me wonder at times if we were going to follow Christine Collins for the rest of her short life (Straczynski said her heart gave out and she died sometime in the 1940s). This may be because it was shot, incredibly, from the first draft of Straczynski’s first movie script and no rewrites were made. “When [the first draft of] your first script is directed by Clint Eastwood, produced by Ron Howard and starring Angelina Jolie, you might as well shoot yourself ’cause it’s all downhill from here,” Straczynski said.
Other interesting tidbits he shared: Sanford Clark, after some time in jail, became a minister and had a family. At one point in the movie, Collins told police the boy returned to her was three inches shorter than her son. In another scene, during the trial, Collins testified that the boy was four inches shorter. When asked, Straczynski readily admitted the discrepancy was a typo but he wasn’t allowed to fix it because the movie was shot during the writers’ strike. (I’ve seen the version of the script being circulated for Oscar consideration and the typo has been corrected to read four inches throughout.)