Director : Clint Eastwood
Screenplay : J. Michael Straczynski
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Angelina Jolie (Christine Collins), John Malkovich (Rev. Gustav Briegleb), Jeffrey Donovan (Capt. J. J. Jones), Michael Kelly (Detective Lester Ybarra), Colm Feore (Chief James E. Davis), Jason Butler Harner (Gordon Northcott), Amy Ryan (Carol Dexter), Geoff Pierson (S. S. Hahn), Denis O’Hare (Dr. Jonathan Steele), Frank Wood (Ben Harris), Peter Gerety (Dr. Earl W. Tarr), Gattlin Griffith (Walter Collins), Devon Conti (Arthur Hutchins)
The bizarro-extraordinary true story at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling was literally saved from the flames by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a former Los Angeles Times reporter-turned-screenwriter whose journalistic buddies tipped him off to some fascinating transcripts from a 1930 Los Angeles City Council meeting. According to Straczynski (in what might be an exaggeration, but still makes for a damn fine tale), he rushed down and got a hold of the papers before they went into the flames of the City Hall incinerator, which provided him his first glimpse into a bizarre Jazz Era tabloid scandal that was threatening to slip into obscurity. He then spent the next year pouring through court records and transcripts in order to reconstruct the story of a largely forgotten woman named Christine Collins, whose search for her missing son ultimately toppled a corrupt police department and sent shock waves through all of southern California.
The undeniably fascinating nature of Collins’s true-life story gives Changeling a solid backbone that makes the film imminently watchable, even when it should be dragging. Eastwood’s deliberate, classical approach to filmmaking works as a kind of corrective to the sensationalistic nature of the story; had a more flamboyant director been given free reign with the material, it would have likely exploded somewhere in the camp atmosphere lorded over by Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006). Of course, Eastwood’s approach can be either incisive and devastating (Million Dollar Baby) or simply plodding (Flags of Our Fathers), and Changeling falls somewhere in the middle. There is no doubt that it grabs your attention early on and sustains it effectively, but it never quite enthralls, even as it stabs deep into the heart of injustice so blatant that it’s hard not to curl your fists in rage.
The story begins in March of 1928, where we are introduced to Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother who works as a telephone operator. One Saturday she is called in to work, and when she returns home she finds that her 9-year-old son Walter has disappeared. After scouring the neighborhood she calls the police, only to be brusquely informed that she must wait 24 hours before reporting a missing child. Unfortunately, this is hardly the worst encounter she will have with the Los Angeles Police Department, which at the time was ruled by Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore), who created a 50-man “gun squad” charged with bringing back criminals dead, rather than alive. Far from the model of efficient investigation and emotion-free professionalism evinced by Jack Webb 20 years later in Dragnet, the LAPD of the 1920s was a bastion of corruption, and the great, resounding irony of it all was that it was exposed by a single mom pressing to find her missing child.
Five months later, Walter is supposedly found in Illinois, but when he is returned to Christine, she immediately protests that it is not her child. The chief investigating officer, J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), arrogantly and dismissively insists that he is her child, and he essentially coerces Christine to go home and take care of a stranger. Aided by the Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a fiery Presbyterian minister and social activist who focuses both his sermons and his weekly radio addresses on exposing rampant police corruption, Christine resists the convenient fiction that has been foisted on her, returning to the police station again and again to press the matter. Each time she is rebuffed and with increasing belligerence, and at one point she is forcibly carted off to an insane asylum “for her own protection.” The police want the case closed mostly because it has provided them a boon of positive press, and to admit that they made a mistake of this magnitude would shine spotlights in places they don’t want to see the light of day.
Christine’s search for her missing son eventually dovetails with a second investigation that begins oddly enough with a tip about a runaway Canadian teenager that leads police to a decrepit chicken farm that harbors a horrible secret. To reveal more would possibly ruin the experience for those who are not familiar with the real-life case (which is, really, just about everyone), but suffice it to say that the narrative twists and turns in Changeling fall squarely in the “you can’t make this stuff up” category. If it weren’t recorded in court documents and council transcripts, no one would buy this particularly scandalous intertwining of perverse criminality, police corruption, and social activism. That Eastwood makes it work as well as he does despite sticking to an unconventional narrative arc that pays more tribute to the realities of life than the conveniences of a three-act structure is testament to his filmmaking prowess, as is the film’s florid evocation of Los Angeles at the end of the 1920s.
If the film doesn’t reach the heights of some of Eastwood’s best work, it is not for lack of effort. Between Straczynski’s excellent script, which takes just enough dramatic license to make it cinematically effective but also draws lines of dialogue directly from the record, and Eastwood’s measured suspense and attention to emotional detail, the film works quite well. However, it has a few awkward stumbling blocks, the most significant of which is the casting of Angelina Jolie. There is no doubt that Jolie is a fine actress of great ability, and she conveys both unrelenting grief and a pervasive sense of determination with great, screen-commanding authority. But, she looks all wrong, and as a result her performance feels more mannered than lived-in. No matter how much she emotes, whether it be indignation or weepy frustration, it is always backlit movie-star intensity, not the gritty humanity the material demands. Jolie’s bee-stung lips are pouted up with blood-red lipstick that is perfectly appropriate for the era, but they only serve to distract from the tough realities of a hard-scrabble single mom whose unwavering faith in finding her son took down an empire of corruption.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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