Three things before I get started. One, Clint Eastwood continues his long string of movies that stand head and shoulders above 90% of Hollywood’s output. (Just forget about Space Cowboys, okay?) Two, every once in a while a movie comes along that makes me so bloody angry I want to leap into the screen and kick the shit out of someone. There are four someones in this movie who qualify. And three … it continues to amaze me that there are true stories out there so unlikely that …
… Well, try to imagine yourself as a writer pitching this made-up story to a producer: “See, there’s this woman in 1928, and her 9-year-old son vanishes. Police are baffled, but five months later a boy turns up in Ohio who claims he’s her son. He’s brought back to Los Angeles … and Mom says “That’s not Walter.” But the police chief tells her to take him home for a sort of road test. You’ll see we were right. She keeps telling the cops that it’s not her son. His teeth don’t match dental records. He’s circumcised, and Walter wasn’t. His teacher and class don’t recognize him. He’s three inches shorter! Now here’s the kicker: The police keep insisting it’s her son! Maybe they believe they’re right, maybe they just want to avoid the embarrassment of being wrong. When the silly, hysterical bitch is still shouting That’s not my son … they throw her in the loony bin. The only way she can get out is to sign a paper agreeing that he is her son … and long before that you are ejected from the producer’s office and hit in the back of the head with your script. “Nobody would believe that story!” the producer says.
But it’s all true, and we haven’t even gotten to the part about the ax murderer of 20 young boys out in the desert, and that’s true, too. This really happened to Christine Collins, played here by Angelina Jolie. It seems that in the ‘20s the LAPD was the most corrupt, violent, out-of-control group of storm troopers east of the Rockies. (Some would say it still is.) It went from the chief’s office right down to the flatfoot on the beat. Chief of police James E. Davis is directly quoted in the film: “We will hold trial on gunmen in the streets of Los Angeles. I want them brought in dead, not alive, and I will reprimand any officer who shows the least bit of mercy to a criminal.” Now, I don’t weep when a thug is shot down by cops, but do you really want a cop deciding who’s a thug and who isn’t? Especially a cop who is more racketeer than the Mafia back East?
The people I wanted to jump into the screen and strangle were the chief, the lead detective J.J. Jones, and Doctors (HAH! Well, they had MD degrees) Earl W. Tarr, and Jonathan Steele. One of them maintained the boy could easily have shrunk three inches due to spinal compression! At the time it was perfectly legal for any police officer to commit any citizen—and they mostly committed women—as mentally incompetent if they showed the least resistance to what the police told them was the truth … or for any reason at all, or no reason at all. No warrant was required, no one needed to be told their location, no hearing was needed, and there was no time limit on how long you could be held. If it weren’t for the intervention of a crusading pastor, Collins might have died in the Los Angeles Psychopathic Hospital, sooner or later, or actually have gone crazy.
This is a deeply disturbing and well-made film. A few liberties are taken with the story, but none of them really mattered to me. The mass killer was helped out by, if you can believe this, his mother. (Aw, isn’t that sweet?) She served 12 years, he was hanged. Bringing her into the film would have added one more bizarre element, but not changed anything, really, except the running time. The two cops did lose their jobs … but got them back real soon. Collins did win a $10,000 judgement against Jones … but he never paid it. The important point is, she won. Those two monsters would never dare mess with her again. And a great deal of civic reform followed from her willingness to defy the most powerful crooks and killers in the county. Collins did spend the rest of her life looking for her son, who was never positively identified, but is probably somewhere out in the desert, where he was dumped like garbage. My only complaints were that the movie was just a tad too long, and that Jolie, though she is very good, is just too darn glamorous for this part. Reese Witherspoon wanted it (too cute), and so did Hilary Swank (she’s already got two Oscars). Who would I have like to have seen? Naomi Watts, Anna Paquin, Natalie Portman, Drew Barrymore … but none of them have the box office star power of Angelina.
Final note: Near the end of the film the mass murderer, Gordon Northcott, is hanged. It is shown in elaborate detail, and some reviewers said it was hard to watch. I didn’t find it that way. I kept thinking about those 20 butchered boys, and my heart became as hard as stone. I might not have felt that way if I’d been there, and smelled it when he crapped in his pants … who knows? But I have to say I actually enjoyed seeing the crybaby blubbering all the way up the scaffold, and taking a bit of time to die. I hope that was historically accurate. Clint is in favor of the death penalty for child torturers and killers, but is against having an audience. I disagree. I think executions, if they happen, must be done it public, not hidden away. It we’re ashamed of them, we shouldn’t be doing them. For myself, as I’ve stated before, I have no moral objections to capital punishment, but great fears lest an innocent person be put to death. It’s happened. And I recognize that, practically speaking, it’s a disaster. If it takes 20 years and millions of dollars of lawyers’ fees to kill a child molester (and it often does), I’d just as soon put him into the general population at San Quentin with BABY RAPER tattooed on his forehead. The problem would take care of itself.