by Tony Medley
Run time 140 minutes.
When it comes to lawlessness and political
corruption, Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s was worse than Tombstone
under the Earp brothers in 1882, or any other frontier town. Police
Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore) was as evil a public servant that has
appeared since the Revolution, ignoring the law and creating his own
Gestapo out of the LAPD. This film shows the first person to
successfully stand up to him, although it took another ten years to
actually get rid of him once and for all, a story that should be good
enough for another movie.
Christine Collins (Oscar® winner Angelina Jolie), a
phone company supervisor, took on the entire Los Angeles establishment
to find her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), who disappeared suddenly and
without a trace while she was at work one day.
Director Clint Eastwood takes a big chance when he
starts this movie with the stark statement, “This is a true story.”
Undoubtedly he wanted to salute Christine's courage. But, even though it is
mostly true, there are stretches in which screenwriter J. Michael Stracynski has included composite characters, like Detective Lester
Ybarra (Michael Kelly), who, in the film, basically breaks the case, and
inventing a back story for Davis.
Stracynski single-handedly rescued Christine’s
heroic struggle when someone at City Hall called him when he was a
reporter for the Los Angeles Times and alerted him that the City was
burning old records and there was at least one that he should see. They
were the transcripts from the hearings involving Collins and the LAPD
before the City Council. Stracynski immediately recognized a great story
and, also, wanted to pay homage to a courageous woman. He read all the
transcripts and wrote this screenplay.
Jolie gives an emotional performance portraying a
woman who loses her son with heartbreaking poignancy, crying real tears
throughout the film. The corrupt LAPD, under Chief Davis, found a boy
(Devon Conti) in the Midwest, and claimed he was Walter. When she met
him, Christine immediately knew he wasn’t Walter, and that started the
downward spiral for Christine. The LAPD wanted her to acknowledge that
this boy was Walter so they could reap the favorable publicity, but she
fought them tooth and nail. Her main antagonist is LAPD Captain J.J.
Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who moves heaven and earth to shut Christine
up. Donovan gives a wonderful performance as the hateful, unsympathetic
There are fine performances by a high-quality cast.
John Malkovich as Christine’s one champion, Reverend Gustav Briegleb,
Amy Ryan as a Prostitute who befriends her, Jason Butler Harner as the
notorious Gordon Northcott, Denis O’Hara as a psychiatrist in charge of
the psycho ward, and Geoff Pierson as the legendary attorney S.S. Hahn, who was
the primogenitor of a famous Los Angeles political family that included
longtime City Councilman Kenny Hahn (who was instrumental in bringing
the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles) and his son who became Mayor,
Eastwood tells the story straight, as it actually
happened, eschewing a Hollywood ending, although he fails to inform the
audience about what happened to Christine, Davis and Jones. I know what
happened to Christine and Davis, but won’t tell because that knowledge
might be a spoiler. I don’t know what happened to Jones. I think after
sitting through this enthralling but difficult movie, and after having
been told specifically that this is a true story, not something "based
on" a story or a person, the audience is entitled to know what happened
to all three.
As good a thriller as this is, and as true as it
is, the star of the movie for me was the loving recreation of 1928 Los
Angeles. Production designer James Murakami and location manager Patrick
Mignano did award-deserving work recreating pre-prohibition Los Angeles.
Visual effects supervisor Michael Owens added effects enhancements and
re-created backdrops, such as the city skyline and the red streetcars
that then populated the region. Their work was so effective that when
the closing credits were shown over a shot of downtown Los Angeles with
the red cars running my guest leaned over to me and asked if I
thought they were using archival films. It’s worth staying for the
closing credits just to watch the activity on the 1928 downtown street
over which the credits are shown.
October 23, 2008