To serve and protect?

November 6, 2008

In his new movie, Changeling, Clint Eastwood tells an important story of LAPD corruption and incompetence.

IN 1928, young boys were disappearing from the streets of Los Angeles, but the police were too corrupt to care. It's against this backdrop that Clint Eastwood's new film Changeling takes place.

The film is based on the real-life Wineville Chicken Coop murders that involved the kidnapping and murder of dozens of boys in the greater Los Angeles area in the late 1920s. Despite gaining national attention at the time, the Wineville case has literally disappeared from popular memory.

This important story of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) corruption and incompetence has been rescued from obscurity by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, who spent a year researching the case in the city's archives, and director Clint Eastwood.

Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mom who is forced into work at the last minute on a Saturday, leaving her son, Walter, at home with a neighbor who promises to look in on him. After she returns home after dark and scours the streets looking for him, she realizes that something has gone terribly wrong.

The police respond with condescension. "Wait 24 hours," they tell her, and then she can file a missing persons report. She is clearly bothering the police, who seem to have better things to do than fight crime.

Colm Feore plays chief James E. Davis, one of the more notorious leaders of the LAPD. Among his more infamous acts in office was forming a 50-man "gun squad" whose purpose, in Davis' words, was to "hold court on gunmen in the Los Angeles streets; I want them brought in dead, not alive, and will reprimand any officer who shows the least mercy to a criminal."

Crusading protestant minister Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) declares, however, that the real purpose of the gun squad is to cut down on the "competition." Prohibition is the law of the land, and well-connected gangsters and policemen are making a fortune from the illegal manufacture and sale of alcohol. Briegleb calls the LAPD the "most violent, corrupt and incompetent" police force west of the Rocky Mountains, and continually exposes their nefarious activities from his pulpit and on his local LA radio program.

Review: Movies

Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski, starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich.

After Collins' story makes the newspapers, Davis and his right-hand man, Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), are under public pressure to solve the case. Quickly, they tell Christine that they have found her son and arrange a media-oriented "reunion" between mother and son. Immediately, Christine realizes that the boy that the LAPD has brought to her is not her son.

Maybe she just doesn't recognize him after all these months, they tell her. Jones bullies her into accepting the stand-in for her son in front of the cameras, with the smug approval of Chief Davis.

How the LAPD thought they could get away with this still boggles the mind. Soon, Christine rebels and calls a press conference to expose the LAPD's fraud and seeks out Rev. Briegleb for help. The police respond by vilifying her and attacking her sanity. Using a police statute known as "Code 12," Jones commits her to the psychiatric wing of the Los Angeles County General Hospital.

Christine discovers a ward filled with the abused female victims of the LAPD. They tell her she can prove her "sanity" if she accepts the stand-in as her son and promises not to pursue the case. Christine is finally released after a break in the case.

Los Angeles bursts into protest as the cover-up and fraud perpetuated by the LAPD is exposed and the public is horrified by the persecution of Collins. Cpt. J.J. Jones is fired from the police force, and James Davis is removed as chief of police.

Changeling is a really good film in many different ways. It's nice to see Angelina Jolie do some real acting after wasting too many years doing so much garbage. It's also nice to watch a right-wing kook like John Malkovich play a crusading liberal minister. But what really makes the film is Eastwood's patient directing of a great screenplay.

After writing for television for 20 years, J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist, wanted to do something different. Luckily, he was contacted by an old source at Los Angeles City Hall, who told him that the city was planning to destroy some of its archive and that there was "something [Straczynski] should see." This turned out to be a transcript of a city council hearing of Collins' case.

"My intention was very simple: to honor what Christine Collins did," told the press earlier this year. Straczynski even put copies of newspaper articles in the script so that everyone participating in the filming knew that this was a true story and not the product of his imagination.

Hopefully, other frustrated screenwriters will take a cue from Straczynski and bring to light the many other stories of injustice and struggle hidden away in the archives of city halls around the country before they are destroyed.

Further Reading

From the archives