November 3, 2008
Now Showing


John Turner
Clint Eastwood's new film, Changeling, forces viewers to confront a truth they would normally want to avoid -- the nature of the human animal. Eastwood, himself, has said lately that it is almost unbelievable how cruel people can be.

The movie tells the story of Christine Collins, a California woman whose son was abducted in March of 1928.  Ms. Collins ended up having to face not only the agony of losing her child, but the corruption of public officials, who decided they had to squelch her when she refused to say that a boy they claimed to have rescued was actually her son. She was seized by the police and thrown into a psychiatric ward, where she was mistreated and pressured to sign a statement acknowledging that the boy was her own.

There is no telling what might have happened to her, had it not been discovered about the same time that a psychopath had murdered a number of boys at his farm on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and that there was evidence pointing to one of the kidnapped boys as  Christine Collins's son.

Those are the bare facts of the case, which critics say the movie depicted accurately.  One might argue, based just on what happened, that the film is, at least partially, an upbeat tale, since the fraud was made public. It does, after all, show that many people were both kind and brave in their support of Christine Collins. Mercy and courage, however, are not what remain in one's mind after he has digested this film. It is not intended to make us feel good about ourselves.

Despite the sensational events Eastwood had at his disposal, he chose not to descend to melodrama. It's a stark movie, not only in its visual effects but also in the tone it imparts. We are left feeling that this is what happens when humans are involved, and that it will keep on happening forever. People have, at best, only a slight power to mitigate it.

What is it that causes people to chop little boys up with axes? What is it that leads public officials to exploit such events to advance their own positions? What is it that induces experts willfully to propagate lies because it's to their monetary advantage? Eastwood doesn't offer us fancy explanations. Changeling says, merely: because that's what people are. Plain and simple.

That being what people are, what are we to do about it? There's slight answer in the film to that question. Yes, people can struggle against falsehood and viciousness. And they can win small skirmishes. But Eastwood doesn't tell us that's victory, because it's not.

If you want to find something positive in Changeling, here it is, in its bleakness. Humans have to change, and not just moderately, if life is not to be perpetually punctuated by horror and pathetic misery. They can't keep on being the same sort of creatures they have been.

Is it possible for humans to change? We don't know. Our inability to have confidence in human change is, perhaps, the largest impediment to making the effort. It's far easier to be conservative, to believe in unwavering human nature, to pull on the mantle of wisdom by acknowledging the conditions we have known as just the way things are. We can, of course, tell ourselves that hideous injustices will be repaired in a future life, as one of the characters in the film proclaims.

You can tell yourself that. But I don't think that's what the film is advising us to do. Rather it is saying: get to the bottom. When you get there, you can't be sure you will ever get out. But, unless you get there, it is a certainty that you will never get out.

A message of that sort doesn't make for Hollywood popularity. Changeling will probably not be a big moneymaker. All the same, I'm glad Eastwood chose to bring it to us.


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