In the 1920's, the Los Angeles Police Department was violent and corrupt at a level that is hard to believe. They bragged of their "gun squads", that had open battles in the streets. Some people brought into police custody were killed in private only to have the bodies dumped in the streets by night. While they needed a warrant to arrest someone, there was no such legal nicety about the cops throwing some citizen in a psychiatric ward. It may not have been on the same scale, but the L.A.P.D. of that era committed the same acts that were seen in Central America under the death squads or in Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union, East Germany and Romania.
The situation was so bad that the Reverend Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian minister who had a local radio show, would often spend his broadcast not praising the Lord or trying to increase his flock, but railing against the unending stream of injustices perpetrated by the police.
Imagining a radio or TV program like that now seems nearly impossible, especially from a person of standing in the established community.
If this weren't dystopic enough, 1928 saw an increase in the number of disappearances of young boys. Through a lucky lead and not solid police work, a series of crimes were unearthed that became known collectively as the Wineville chicken coop murders. Wineville, about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles near Riverside, was so overwhelmed with negative publicity that the city fathers changed the name to Mira Loma in 1930.
These facts are in the public record. Earlier this decade the L.A.P.D. were about to destroy the original records. J. Michael Straczynski, best known for the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5 and known to his fans as JMS, was informed by a friend that these records were about to be lost, so JMS scoured the documents and made them the basis for his script for the movie Changeling.
JMS worked with the lawyers from Universal Studios to fact-check the final cut of the movie so that they could say the movie was "a true story" instead of "based on a true story". To get all the elements of the story into the movie, it was decided the protagonist of the movie would be Christine Collins, a mother of one of the missing boys assumed to have been at the Wineville chicken coop, though that was never proved. Her story allows the movie to explore the callous disregard of the L.A.P.D. in ways that would have been impossible if the focus had been on the murderer, Gordon Stewart Northcott.
My philosophical sticking point is with the very idea of "a true story". The truth is a messy set of things that happened. A story needs a plot, a beginning, middle and end, a main character and challenges for that character to overcome. A story can be triumphal or tragic or even a little of both, but eventually a story must end. The truth just keeps on going.
People who have done the research have only a few quibbles with the facts JMS presents. Some of the central characters in the actual events were left out of the film, most notably Northcott's mother, who acted as his accomplice. One confession was chronologically out of place for dramatic effect.
The big flaw in "a true story" comes from when we decide to say the story is over. In JMS's script, Christine Collins and the forces of justice are shown to prevail in an important aspect of a civil proceeding. Doing some research online, that moment of victory was undercut later by the punishment handed down to the wicked being overturned.
Story and history do come from the same root word. It is a natural thing for humans to want to make a narrative for the events they see unfold around them. But we should always be careful when composing a story from the facts of real life, because we may never know when, if ever, the story actually ends.