Clint Eastwood's Suspenseful Period Drama "The Exchange": The Exchange Rate – Fluctuations in the Market for Truth By Lisa Nesselson

in 61st Cannes Film Festival

by Lisa Nesselson

The ironies and contradictions of studio filmmaking and of current U.S. politics are very much at work in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. Just prior to the film’s world premiere in competition at Cannes on May 20th, the original title, which means “a child believed to have been secretly substituted by fairies for the parents’ real child in infancy”, was changed to The Exchange. (There was no formal confirmation that marketing fairies were behind the substitution.)

If I were lucky enough to have a Euro for every time I heard someone say that Eastwood’s fact-inspired tale of ineptitude, coverups and breaches of due process in Los Angeles circa 1928 is “too melodramatic” this essay would halt right about here, since I’d be wealthy enough to retire.

The nay-sayers were also out in force concerning the film’s highly capable leading lady. Since we now know that the FBI did indeed pull many a dirty trick to undermine Jean Seberg’s mental health and did work overtime to neutralize John Lennon’s prodigious influence, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there’s a secret government program paying people to say that Angelina Jolie is “too skinny” or that her lips are too full.

Whether you appreciate her acting or not, at Cannes 2007 Jolie was the feisty fulcrum of A Mighty Heart and, a year later, she’s at the mighty ventricular apparatus of another strong, fact-based story of how to cling to one’s sanity in the face of bureaucracy, incomprehension and presumed loss.

Jolie plays Christine Collins, a real-life single mother who supported herself and her 9-year-old son Walter as a switchboard supervisor at the telephone company.

Early scenes establish that Walter and his mother enjoy a healthy, loving, mutually supportive relationship. But Walter is no mamma’s boy: after a schoolyard incident, Christine tells her son never to start a fight but, should a fight be unavoidable, to be the one to finish it.

The screenwriting maxim “Never show a gun unless you intend to use it” here takes the form of “Never show a youngster being measured against the wall of his own home unless you intend to use it.”

One morning during breakfast, Christine makes a pencil mark — one in a series rising up the wall — to immortalize her growing boy’s current height.

Having filled in for an ailing co-worker, Christine returns home one day to find the house empty. Walter has vanished.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) doesn’t share her concern, and valuable time elapses. Smart, decent little Walter could have been abducted by aliens for all we know.

Day after day, Christine makes use of her breaks at the office to literally work the phones, contacting police departments all over the country for possible news of her still-missing boy.

Five months later, Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Eore) of the LAPD announces to Christine that Walter has been located in, of all places, Dekalb, Illinois — thousands of miles to the east of LA. He’s just fine and will soon be returning by train.

Mother and son are reunited on the platform with photographers and journalists on hand to celebrate the moment. And it would be a heartening moment indeed were it not for one niggling detail: Christine says the boy is not Walter.

She is persuaded not to ruin the occasion over something as trifling as not immediately recognizing her own boy. Christine is railroaded into taking the lad home for a test drive. But she has evidence — as damning as it is irrefutable — that this boy is an impostor. Among other things, that means the police have stopped looking for the real Walter, a situation Christine finds intolerable.

Although she is polite and reasonable, Christine’s accusations make the people in power uncomfortable. As far as they’re concerned they located her missing boy and she should just shut the hell up and get back to the business of raising him. The Exchange is about a woman up against a world run by men. The 10-year-old impostor under her roof has more power than she does for a good portion of the story.

For the simple act of contradicting authority, Christine finds herself stripped of her most basic rights and hustled into a detention facility where she is kept incommunicado and subjected to drugs and torture. Her only option for being discharged is to sign a confession that runs counter to her most deeply held convictions.

Hmmmm — what kind of twisted democracy would dare resort to such tactics? Why would officials given to such abuses of power think they could get away with silencing their detractors?

Eastwood’s latest feature functions as a suspenseful period drama that, in the best Hollywood tradition, echoes current events. It speaks of the destructive downside of the unmediated urge for fame, the perils of notoriety, the ways in which society as a whole is weakened when civil servants take the law into their own tainted hands. It addresses the folly of passing off surface appearances as truth and the dangers of denying the truth at the expense of lost or damaged human lives.

Journalist-turned-screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski stumbled upon the true story of Christine Collins when one of his old contacts tipped him off that Los Angeles City Hall was about to incinerate masses of old documents. Straczynski found transcripts of courtroom testimony, which was only the start of a tentacular tale eminently worth telling.

The real Christine Collins decided to finish a fight she didn’t start. Fans of taut courtroom dramas will enjoy the layers of legal implications beautifully recreated for the camera.

The Cannes edition of the daily give-away paper “Metro” dated May 26th quotes an official from the Mayor’s office as follows: “We had to dispose of nine tons more of garbage per day than for previous editions of the festival.”

It’s not difficult to find festival attendees only too happy to tell you they saw a lot of garbage — but Clint Eastwood’s latest feature, which has the temerity to use a period drama to address pertinent aspects of the world we’re living in now, is anything but trash.