Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)
I’m interested in storytelling not only because it is innately human but also because it is a useful site for examining our conceptualization of reality. At their heart, stories act on both the audience and the teller, who affirms his or her view of reality through the very act of telling a story. Stories function best in an environment where reality is understood (whether consciously or tacitly) as neither fully “objective” nor “subjective.” The best description of reality I have read is that it is that which “pushes back” when we interact with the world. This implies (rightly) that we don’t experience it directly and, moreover, that we have some latitude in constructing our world; it is only when reality “pushes back” on us that we are constrained. In every other instance, we are free to shape our world according to our desires and values. Stories play in that free space: they fall apart when reality “pushes back” and invalidates them in some way (e.g. through a fault in their logic or through inauthentic characters). Stories are unavoidably about play because they encourage us to navigate between our experience and interaction with the world, on the one hand, and the “push-back” of reality on the other hand. Within that space, we have a curious opportunity to construct something out of nothing and to bend our world to a vision and to our desires.
In Changeling, Clint Eastwood engages storytelling head-on. The film is, of course, an act of storytelling in and of itself, and yet, it also seems to find a way to return again and again to examining the curious ways that humans use stories to shape their lives and the world around them. On one level, the main character Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie)—a woman who loses her son and then is forced by the police to accept a similar boy in order to close the case—is engaged for almost the entirety of the film in telling herself one story over and over, repeating it like a mantra and a prayer: her son is still living and will return one day. On another level, the film examines storytelling’s relationship with power as it looks at the way the police and other social institutions compete with one another to establish the supremacy of their stories. For the most part, we don’t actually witness the police doing actual police work in the film; we seem them engaged in creating and embellishing stories in order to control public perception. Eastwood doesn’t simply depict these acts of storytelling; he actively encourages us to critically examine how storytelling (a primal activity of humankind) can play different roles in society, some particularly sinister.
The central struggle of competing narratives in Changeling revolves around whether Christine Collins really did have her son returned to her or she was, in fact, given an impostor. A woman’s child is, in a way, a story of sorts. When we see a child acting exceptionally bad or good, we often comment not on the child himself but on the mother. She’s either a good mother or a bad mother, and some people say that you can tell a lot about a mother by how her child behaves. When Christine’s son disappears, this narrative thread in her life, probably the most important component of her identity, is threatened. She realizes that the new boy is an impostor, but despite this, she momentarily doubts herself (the only time she will do so), wondering if perhaps, as the police and their “experts” have suggested, the stress has prevented her from seeing that this boy really is Walter, albeit changed from the experience. In fact, when we are first introduced to the “fake Walter,” shortly before the police pick him up, Eastwood shoots the scene with ambiguous shadows that cause us to wonder if this is the real Walter or not. But Christine discovers the truth, which “pushes back” on her and prevents her from believing this boy is really Walter, even if she wanted to (which she clearly doesn’t). Earlier in the film, Eastwood showed us Christine measuring her son’s height and marking it against a wall. “If only these walls could talk,” goes the saying, but in this case, they actually do tell a story. And most damning of all evidence, this new boy is, unlike the real Walter, circumcised.
Having realized the truth, Christine goes on a campaign against the police, aided by a Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich). While the police expend all this time and energy trying to convince Christine that this boy is the real Walter, they stop actually looking for her son. How can you look for something that is already found and returned home? Reverend Briegleb has his own motivations for helping Christine—he hates the police and sees Christine’s case as a weapon against them—even if he displays genuine compassion for her. In an astonishing sequence, Eastwood shows us Briegleb telling Christine about how the police force work. At one point, Briegleb quotes someone in the police, and instead of showing us Briegleb saying this man’s words, Eastwood quickly cuts to the man himself, speaking in front of a podium to an audience. This cinematic device convinces us that we can trust Briegleb, because we can instantly verify that he was quoting the man correctly. It also highlights the fundamental tension of all storytelling, which is the way it must originate from a particular speaker with a particular perspective, and so, every story is always an incomplete (i.e. told from one particular perspective) version of its events. Eastwood’s film, in acknowledging this, attempts to speak to the audience with a genuine honesty and vulnerability, because it risks a complexity that is often damaging to the potency of a story. Of course, this points to the essential difference between politics—what the police are engaging in—and art—the domain of Eastwood.
Briegleb and Christine read a story in the newspaper about her, depicting her as an insane woman who won’t accept her own son returned to her. This is another of Eastwood’s brilliant critiques of storytelling’s ambiguity and relation to power. When we read a story in the newspaper, there is a tendency to believe it simply because it is in the newspaper, surrounded by signs of authenticity and verity. When Christine, who we as an audience strongly side with, reads a story about how she is crazy, we realize how duplicitous words (and stories) can be. There is a saying that history is written by the winners; this is not “history” but a history, one particular story about reality. In some of the most manipulative cases of “rewriting history,” reality can no longer even “push back,” so debilitated under the force of totalitarian pressure. Eastwood had only recently examined these very themes in Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), two films that examine the same event from different perspectives. Earlier, his Unforgiven (1992)—another film that directly engages the act of storytelling—looks at the same way that truths lie underneath and submerged by myth and official history. As a filmmaker, Eastwood displays a desire to turn away from totalitarian mythmaking, the purview of power, and towards a tender and warmly compassionate view of naked truth, stripped of human comforts.
To combat the “experts” that the police have enlisted to create the narrative that Christine is insane, Christine finds people (her son’s dentist and his teacher) who can help her construct a counter-narrative. That her efforts are successfully is indicated by the police force’s response: they have her committed to the hospital’s psych ward in order to shut her up. Here, Eastwood shows us another dimension to this theme of telling stories and constructing narratives. First, he offers us a warning that even when we successfully create counter-narratives to combat the powerful elite, their power might be used as a weapon of brute force against us. Second, he engages the theme of how women have been portrayed throughout the 20th century, another example of the violence done largely through mere storytelling (narrative construction). Inside the hospital, Christine is warned about how her different reactions will be used against her. If she’s too cheerful, then she’s crazy, because how could anyone be happy to be there? If she’s too angry, then she’s dangerous. If she’s too upset, then she’s hysterical. If she shows too much sadness, she’s depressed, but if she doesn’t show enough sadness about being separated from her “son,” then she’s not even fit to be a mother. Eastwood’s camera is like a microscope in this and other scenes, examining parts of our history and showing us the untold stories residing underneath official dogma.
Around this point in the film, Eastwood introduces another plot revolving around a man who abducts and murders children, aided unwillingly by his nephew Sanford. The police find Sanford one day on his uncle’s ranch and arrest him, but they are unaware of the murders; they are arresting him for being in the country illegally. As soon as it looks like he will be deported, Sanford tells the police officer who picked him up that he has an important story he needs to tell. He proceeds to tell his story about what his uncle does. As he narrates, Eastwood shows us images to illustrate this story, which has the ambiguous effect of making us believe more strongly in the story (because it is visible and “looks” real) and making us more suspicious of it (because we sense the deceptive nature of this technique). We know that Sanford has the perfect motivation to make up a story like this: it will help him delay being deported. But we also want to believe that he is making it up, not only because it is gruesome and disturbing but also because he suggests that Christine’s son Walter might have been one of the boys who was murdered. Throughout the telling of this story, the police officer listens with perfect attention; Eastwood playfully shows us the ashes from his cigarette fall from remaining ignored throughout the entire story. Eastwood plunges us head-first into theme of storytelling’s ambiguity, but he also introduces a second, closely-tied theme, that of faith, which is in itself a product of narrative.
The film that Changeling reminds me of most is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) because of the way it elicits an attitude of hopeful faith from the audience. Like Changeling, Ordet makes explicit the idea of multiple, competing viewpoints. In the most vivid and intense movie-going experience of my life, I watched Ordet and was made to beg and plead to believe in and witness the miracle of resurrection, the film’s climactic event. Dreyer’s film so powerfully radiates a kind of intense desire that the viewer can pour all of his yearning into the film. No matter what the object of that yearning is, Ordet’s theme of mortality and the desire to conquer it makes it relevant to anyone. From this point of view, it is not even a particularly “religious” film—it does, in fact, offer a critique of different, common attitudes Christians have towards their own religion. That we want to believe in resurrection has nothing to do with the supernatural; it is the purification of all of our desire, of any kind. The film causes us to wish for something that is impossible in our own world, and yet, we do and are transformed into raw, vulnerable children who wish so very strongly that the world was different, more like they want it to be. This most perfect expression of the yearning for life, the desire to reverse death and conquer mortality, is echoed in Changeling. Christine never gives up her quest to once again be reunited with Walter, and she constructs a story—that Walter is still alive (because no one has given her reason to believe otherwise)—in order to ground her faith.
Like Ordet, Changeling is about the gap between reason and faith, a gap created by the space between reality and our experience of the world. This gap does not require reason and faith to be opponents of one another; rather, it merely highlights how pure rational thought cannot fulfill all human needs. Later in the film, Eastwood presents us with two courtroom scenes in which the police officers who harmed Christine and Sanford’s uncle are “brought to justice.” Eastwood intercuts these two scenes even though they are not happening simultaneously; Christine is present in both. The editing instead shows us how similar the proceedings are in both, how a narrative is constructed in order to create villains. The police officers certainly deserve some form of punishment for their appalling actions, but it is still possible to feel that the story being told about them is unfairly one-sided. And Sanford’s uncle is presented too easily as a psychopath for us to accept that the case is as simple as it appears. Watching this trial, I admit that I really couldn’t tell whether he was guilty or not. Eastwood makes us too aware of the way narratives are constructed for us to accept them easily, even if they represent (for the most part) the truth. This ambiguity guarantees that this form of justice, which is presented to us as though it were for Christine’s sake, will not satisfy Christine or make her feel that much better. It is all a show, which is a poor consolation prize for losing one’s son.
Christine later visits Sanford’s uncle just before he is about to be hung. He tells her that he can reveal to her whether or not her son was among the boys he allegedly killed. Because of Eastwood’s presentation and subtle narrative tension, it is still not entirely clear if he is guilty. We might wonder if, perhaps, he is merely reaching out for contact with someone he respects (as he indicated to Christine in the courtroom). Or perhaps he is trying to salvage what remains of his life by doing something kind. We don’t know what narrative is running through his head, what story he is telling himself. When they meet, he is unable to talk to her, and she clearly takes the upper hand, commanding the space of the room with the power of her faith. She later watches his hanging, a scene that contrasts starkly with the narrative and imagery presented in the courtroom scenes. This is not heroic justice but chilling, grim reality. Later, Christine hears more about Sanford’s uncle and what might have happened to her son. She hears that another mother has had her son return after being imprisoned by Sanford’s uncle. The boy tells the police that Christine’s son was one of the boys there too and that he escaped. It is the kind of evidence that confirms Christine’s faithful search.
Christine’s faith is both a means and an end in itself. It helps her carry on, believing that her son is still alive, and encourages her to keep looking for him, which she does, we see, virtually every day. But it is also a product of the narrative she constructs in order to define herself. Changeling’s imagery recalls quite often the work of Edward Hopper, that great (and underrated) poet of loneliness. The loneliness of Hopper’s paintings is not a loneliness brought about by failure; it is the natural condition of all humans. His paintings portray moments of absolute stillness, in which it is clear how separated from each other we are and how confusing and without direction life can be. In Changeling, Eastwood balances lightness and darkness so as to hint at this same feeling of loneliness. In certain scenes, particularly in Christine’s house, the darkness at night appears to fight with the light and win, suffocating every room and giving the impression that the world is to be forever filled with doubt. That reality only “pushes back” and does not present itself directly can be a source of freedom, but it can also be saddening, confusing.
The competition between the darkness of doubt and the light of reason (or is it faith?) is present in almost every scene in Changeling. Many might be tempted to conclude that the film looks back at a time much less sophisticated than our own, needing enlightenment. How could they treat women and children that way? But aside from the fact that much the same still happens today, albeit in different forms, what can never be eliminated is the very basic existential confusion of human life. In the end, what stands out is that Christine, this very tragic woman who yearns to be reunited with her only son, has in her own way conquered this confusion and answered the question with her own narrative of faith and motherly love. The most horrifying character, Sanford’s uncle, cowers in her presence, even though she can’t do anything to him, given that he is about to be hung. The character of Christine is so powerful because although we may be tempted to pity her for having lost her son, she is so much more confident and focused than any of us. We marvel that she can pursue her quest day in and day out, year after year. Eastwood’s film is the portrait of the light of faith possessed by this woman, never extinguished no matter how dark the world becomes.