Saw Changeling last night, the new movie by director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (former Writers Digest columnist/author!), and I have to say:
This movie is many things…
• A disturbing psychological thriller
• A restrained “little-guy-takes-on-the-system” drama
• A great screenwriting lesson
• A scathing indictment of the Bush administration
Based on a true story, Changeling begins in 1928 and follows Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a Los Angeles woman whose son, Walter (Gatlin Griffith), mysteriously disappears. Distraught, Collins goes to the LA Police Department, which has been under fire lately from press accusations of corruption, ineptitude, etc. Over the next five months, Collins becomes a local cause celebre, especially on the radio show of L.A. firebrand Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), whose mission in life is to expose and punish the corruption at LAPD. Until one day, Collins gets a call from Captain J.J. Jones, the cop handling her case (Jeffrey Donovan)…
The police have found her son, living with a drifter in DeKalb, Illinois. Yet when Jones returns Walter to her, Collins is horrified… THIS BOY IS NOT HER SON.
And this is where things get interesting.
Although Collins attempts to convince the authorities that the child is not hers, they convince her she’s overwhelmed with emotion and unable to recognize the boy. When Collins notices actual physiological and anatomical differences—the new “Walter” is three inches shorter and circumcised—the police send over doctors to “scientifically explain” the changes: trauma makes people shrink, the drifter may have circumcised the kid himself, etc. But when Collins refused to back down, Captain Jones gets aggressive, committing her to an insane asylum where the shrink refuses to declare her “healthy” unless she agrees the boy is hers.
These early scenes (and by “early,” I mean the first two thirds of the film) are the strongest part… both a Kafka-esque nightmare and a Hitchcockian thriller about a falsely accused protagonist battling against massive, mysterious forces beyond her control. Eastwood and Straczynski even seem to be embracing specific Hitchcock tropes… the cops/authority figures who won’t listen, doctors who twist Collins’ words back on her, the use of elaborate psychological explanations and treatments, etc. Even the characters actors seem to be embracing Hitchcock types: a man-boy-ish, Anthony Perkins-esque serial killer… a bulldog-ish nurse… etc.
These sections of the movie are also a brilliant condemnation of the Bush White House. The obstinate, arrogant, proud Captain Jones twists facts and circumvents laws in order to achieve his own personal motives and avoid repercussions. When he’s presented with solid evidence that “Walter” is not Collins’ son, he denies it and sends in his own “experts” to prove otherwise. He sentences Collins to an inhumane prison (an insane asylum) with no trial, evaluation, or even chance for rebuttal. He defends his actions with lines like, “Departmental policy is what I say it is,” and “This police department does not tolerate dissent, embarrassment, or contradiction.” All this time, the real perpetrators of the crime are running around free, but Jones doesn't care; he's too focused on his own crusades and bending truth to make them happen. When taken to task for his actions, Captain Jones defends them on grounds that he acted appropriately based on information he was given… and he’s not responsible for being given false information. (“Extraordinary steps were taken because we were dealing with an extraordinary situation,” he says.)
Most importantly, however (at least for our Script Notes purposes!), I was struck by how Changeling is a perfect example of screenwriting’s most basic tenet: a character with a simple, solid, tanible “want” meets an immovable obstacle… and must take action to defeat it.
Collins’ want is obvious… she wants to find her son… and she articulates this simply and clearly throughout the movie, literally saying—over and over—“I want to find my son,” “Where is my son,” "I want my son back," etc. Even when it has become apparent that LAPD is pulling strings and being shady… even when we, the audience, are hungering for the defeat of Jones and the evil cops… Collins doesn’t stray from her single-minded want: “I want to find my son.”
I think this is an important lesson, because screenwriters often think the best way to give characters dimension and complexity is to give them MULTIPLE WANTS… but this actually just confuses the story. Collins is relentless in what she’s trying to accomplish… even when Captain Jones gets his comeuppance—and lesser screenwriters would’ve said, “Okay, the bad guy is vanquished”—Straczynski knows the story can’t end until the protagonist’s want is fulfilled (or, if she doesn’t succeed, at least addressed). (To be fair, the movie’s biggest flaw is that it goes on a bit long; it has about seven endings. Still, it’s never less than riveting…)
Likewise, Straczynski’s villain—Jones and the LAPD—is equally unstoppable… and more powerful. Jones barely has to struggle to tamp down Collins when he needs to; with an entire police force and a gaggle of lapdog reporters at his disposal, he simply utters a few words and Collins gets pummeled.
It’s truly a case of “an unstoppable force” meeting “an immoveable object,” and Collins triumphs only by never giving up and chipping away, slowly and steadfastly. It’s screenwriting—and theoretical physics—at its most basic.
I know this lesson seems elementary, but I LOVE learning this, being reminded of this, over and over. I often find that when I’m blocked, or unable to break a story, it’s returning to Screenwriting 101 basics that’s most helpful… that I’m usually stuck precisely because I’ve forgotten the foundations of solid storystelling. I’m trying to complicate a simple situation… or I’ve given my character multiple/confusing wants… or my antagonist isn’t powerful enough and it’s weakening my story. And by being reminded of rules as simple as clarifying and reminding myself of my character’s one tangible want, I’m able to get see the story anew and move forward.
Anyway, Changeling opens this weekend… do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s not only a terrific movie, it’s a wonderful lesson in simple, irrefutable storytelling and screenwriting.
Lemme know what you think of it...