Changeling is the 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood that looks at the complex relationship between Christine Collins and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as she sets out to find her son, Walter, who vanished and "mysteriously" reappeared only to have been replaced by an imposter. Through her continued insistence that the child returned to her was not her legitimate son, Reverend Gustav Brieglib, who was on a personal mission to expose the LAPD's corruption, is able to demonstrate that the police department, and Captain J.J. Jones who handled the Collins' investigation, acted negligently in their investigation and the subsequent (unlawful) detention of Mrs. Collins. Through Changeling's narrative, plot, and dialogue, Eastwood is able to highlight the impact and influence of social institutions on abuse and corruption and the disempowerment -- and subsequent empowerment -- of women.
Changeling begins with Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single, working mother, and the mysterious disappearance of her son Walter. Instinctively, Mrs. Collins calls the police to report Walter missing and is subsequently informed that she must wait at least 24 hours before police will look into the disappearance (Changeling; Straczynski 12). Despite reporting her son missing as soon as she noticed his absence, Mrs. Collins does not hear any news until two weeks after his disappearance when she is informed that her son has been located and will be returned safely to her shortly. It is during this time that the audience is introduced to the social institutions of mass media and the influence that it has on the public when it is used by religious institutions and the influence it has when used by the police.
Prior to being informed that her son has be located, the audience is introduced to Reverend Gustav Brieglib (John Malkovich), a Presbyterian minister, as he gives a sermon to his congregation. In this scene, Reverend Brieglib is shown to have a substantial number of church members in attendance who not only share his vision, but also who demonstrate the reach of his beliefs. Furthermore, through his sermon, the audience is informed that it has been two weeks since the disappearance of Walter Collins and that they "pray for her today as we have every day since we first learned of her situation on the radio and in the newspapers" (Changeling; Straczynski 13-14). In this scene, it is established that media has played a monumental role in Mrs. Collins' and the LAPD's search for Walter. In the scene where Mrs. Collins and her son are to be reunited, the audience is introduced to Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the lead investigator on the case. In an attempt to depict the LAPD in a better light, amidst the allegations of corruption that have plagued the force for many years as Reverend Brieglib alludes to in his sermon, Cpt. Jones invites the media to document the happy reunion. However, the child that is returned to Mrs. Collins is an imposter and though she promptly informs Cpt. Jones of the error, he insists that she take the boy home "on a trial basis" (Changeling; Straczynski 24). Despite Mrs. Collins' insistence that the boy is not her son, she is photographed with the boy and Cpt. Jones by the media, who then announces that Mrs. Collins has been happily reunited with her son through the help of Cpt. Jones.
In the public sphere, the police use the media to manipulate the public into believing that they had accomplished a grand task and reunited Mrs. Collins and Walter even though they had not truly done so. Instead of admitting their mistake, the LAPD uses the good publicity to help further better their image and convince the public that they are not a corrupt entity. Moreover, the LAPD, through the use of mass media, attempt to manipulate the public into believing that Mrs. Collins is delusional in believing that the boy that was returned to her is not her son and publishes an article in the LA Times refuting Mrs. Collins' claims. By abusing their authority and enlisting the help of Dr. Tarr, who has been hired to protect the integrity of the police department, the LAPD attempts to manipulate the public into taking their side over Mrs. Collins'. The LAPD's corruption is best demonstrated through Reverend Brieglib's explanation to Mrs. Collins about his quest to expose the LAPD as a corrupt organization. Through a dramatized sequence of the LAPD's corrupt dealings, beginning with a press conference in which Chief Davis announces the formation of a "gun squad" and the subsequent consequences thereof, the audience is able to see how deep the corruption within the LAPD runs. Furthermore, it is interesting to note how the sequence transitions from Chief Davis' public announcement to the hidden actions of gun squad and the murders that they commit out of the public's sight (Changeling). After reading Dr. Tarr's findings in the Times, Reverend Brieglib requests a meeting with Mrs. Collins to discuss the blatant attempt at discrediting her publically. In the scene in which Mrs. Collins and Reverend Brieglib meet for the first time, it becomes evident that he wishes to not only help her get her story out and expose the boy as a fraud, but also that he wishes to expose the corruption of the LAPD and to demonstrate how far their reach is, especially since they appear to have the power to enlist the help of medical professionals to confirm what they want others to hear (Changeling). As Mrs. Collins reads the newspaper article aloud, the scene jump cuts to Dr. Tarr giving a press conference in which he reveals his "findings" about the boy, which demonstrates that although the LAPD did not have direct control over what was published, they did have a hand in determining how they presented themselves and what was released to the media. During this encounter between Mrs. Collins and Reverend Brieglib, he points out that the LAPD wants to make Mrs. Collins appear responsible for the physical and psychological changes that have occurred in the boy. Reverend Brieglib comments, "Lovely bit of phrasing, isn't it? Noticed since the return of the boy to his mother? Not only does it state clearly that you are the boy's mother, one could infer from this that you are somehow responsible for these changes...and that the police are concerned for the boy's welfare in your hands" (Changeling; Straczynski 38). It is evident that the LAPD is preparing to take an unknown action against Mrs. Collins by questioning her ability to take care of the boy.
On the other hand, Reverend Brieglib uses the media to demonstrate that the LAPD is, in fact, corrupt. In addition to trying to obfuscate the truth, mass media is also used to attempt to inform the audience about the rampant corruption that LAPD engages in. For example, Mrs. Collins, after gathering information, evidence, and signed affidavits from those that knew Walter confirming that the boy is an imposter, approaches the media to point out the LAPD's mistakes, which of course, infuriates Cpt. Jones, who orders an officer to bring Mrs. Collins to the station, through the back no less. It is important to note that at the beginning of this sequence, Mrs. Collins is seen being dropped off at the site of the press conference by Reverend Brieglib who anticipates seeing Mrs. Collins later that evening to continue her media blitz and talk to him about her ordeal on his radio show (Changeling). As a consequence of her press conference with the newspapers, Cpt. Jones deems Mrs. Collins to be a nuisance and a threat to the LAPD and, without due process, has her committed to a psychopathic ward under a designation Code 12 (Changeling). In one of her letters, Mrs. Collins recounts this ordeal: "In August 1928 a boy was found in the east who posed as our boy and because I would not accept him as our son I was treated most inhumanly, called a lair, damn fool, crook and almost everything by the police here and finally throw into the psychopathic ward of the General Hospital among the maniacs for five days and nights" (Collins).
Through the attempts to discredit Mrs. Collins and her subsequent committal to the psychopathic ward, Changeling highlights how women were disempowered, especially by the LAPD. While Mrs. Collins only spent "five days and nights" in the psychopathic ward, it is clear that the conditions into which she was thrown in to were inhumane. In Cpt. Jones' voiceover narration that explains why Mrs. Collins was committed he reports, "She suffers from paranoia, delusions of persecution, and dislocation from reality. She may be a threat to herself or others. We recommend that she be conveyed to the psychopathic ward for treatment and observation until her senses can be restored" (Changeling; Straczynski 51). In the psychopathic ward sequence, not only is Mrs. Collins strip-searched, but she is also subjected to a cavity search and a blood test to confirm that…