Friday, October 31, 2008
'Changeling'-- a True Story of Courage and Persistence
I must confess, I am not the world's biggest Angelina Jolie fan. Yes she can act, but until this movie, I had not really found a film that showed her scope and full abilities. John Malkovich on the other hand is an amazing actor of huge range and scope in abilities. He could play the Pope one day, and the Devil the next, and be convincing in both roles. Here he is really stretching out in playing a crusading Presbyterian minister by the name of Gustav Briegleb, and doing it well. His crusade is against the L.A.P.D., which was full of graft, corruption and scandal in 1928ff.
Clint Eastwood has made this film with meticulous attention to period detail, and methodical development of the story line, which, not coincidentally is an absolutely true story. I say methodical because it takes 141 minutes for him to tell the tale at the pace he chooses. It would have been best had he edited it down a tad, but still this is first rate film making of the highest order.
The story being told is an absolutely true one of a mother's quest to find her missing child, no matter what the cost. The mother in question is a single mother (the father skipped when he discovered he was going to have to be a responsible father) whose name is Christine Collins. She is, seemingly, an ordinary person who works as a supervisor of telephone operators, in the good old days when you would dial the operator who would place your call for you. If you remember those days, and the days of 'party lines' raise your hand. Christine, interestingly enough, does her job on roller skaters, but this is about the only humorous element in the entire movie. For me, the story was immediately personal because the house in L.A. in which Christine lived was very much like my grandparents house (and of the same vintage) and when I saw that Christine's son Walter had the very same cowboy bedspread I grew up with as a child--- well, this movie became both real and personal for me.
All seems normal in March 1928, when Christine is called into work on a Saturday when there were not enough workers at the phone exchange, but it required that she leave Walter her young son at home. Walter is not a gadabout, but when Christine comes home late in the afternoon, Walter has gone missing.
Her call to the L.A.P.D. is met with a technical rebuff.... "wait until morning, we have a 24 hour rule, and see if he turns up." No amber alert here. Walter in fact has been snatched, snatched by a deranged child kidnapper and killer from Vancouver Canada who has a ranch in nearby Wineville.
In an age before DNA evidence and proper forensics, the L.A.P.D. goes about its work with certain limitations, and when they call Christine to tell her that her son has been found--- of course she is euphoric. But when the police and Christine and the media go to meet the boy coming on the train from Illinois, it turns out not to be Walter, her son. He is too short, his teeth aren't right, and he is circumcised, unlike Walter. Never mind, the boy claims to be Walter, and the police suggest that she has just forgotten or is too emotional to remember what her son looked like, or that he had changed dramatically in the intervening months since he had disappeared. But that is not the end of the police's face saving duplicity. This movie does a good job of showing how chauvinists have always tended to belittle the intelligence, veracity, and courage of women in a male-dominated world.
In a move that would seem impossible to today, when Christine Collins continues to insist this boy is not her son, the police have her locked up in the local psychopaths ward rather than trying to actually find Walter! Clearly their public and phony reputation of solving crimes mattered more than the life of the boy. But Gustav Briegleb tirelessly works to expose the L.A.P.D. and vindicate Christine, eventually springing her from her cell in psycho lock-up.
So persistent is Christine Collins in wanting to know the truth of what had happened to her son, that she even goes to San Quentin prison shortly before the convicted murderer of numerous boys is about to be executed, in order to hear from his own mouth that he killed Walter. Alas, though he had telegrammed her to come and hear his confession, he refuses to give it when she arrives.
This story puts on full display the messiness and often unresolved character of life in a fallen world. There is both good and evil in this world, and some measure of justice is possible in the world, but it provides neither comfort nor adequate compensation to a mother who has lost her son forever, and whose son was surely brutally murdered.
For me, I was very pleased with the portrayal of Rev. Briegleb who reveals indeed just how important the social part of the full Gospel is to God's Good News. "For what does the Lord demand of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God..." This story gives the lie to any sort of disembodied proclamation of the Gospel that deals only with things spiritual and does not involve compassionate acts to rescue the innocent, the abused, the at risk, the violated, the widow or orphan in distress to mention but a few examples.
If you go to see this movie, prepare to see a large, and often unpleasant dose of reality in a wicked world--- and also see how despite the darkness some measure of goodness and the milk of human kindness and justice can be found in this world.
Posted by Ben Witherington at 1:10 PM
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I know this is an odd post to write this comment, but I wanted to thank you for your book, The Christology of Jesus. I have learned an immense amount about our Lord through your work. Not only that, I also gained greater insight into the thesis of Lohfink's book, Jesus and Community. Although it was a small portion of your book, your explanation of why Lohfink's (and your own) understanding of the calling of the twelve was not a terminal representation of Israel, but was instead an example of the larger mission has helped me greatly. My seminary experience has been shaped for the better because of your work. Thank you.
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