Title: Changeling
Year: 2008
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Play time:  
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Screenwriters: J. Michael Straczynski
Starring:  Angelina Jolie, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan

It’s almost a cliché now for movies to be preceded by antique versions of studio logos, but it’s never been more appropriate than in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. This preachy, doggedly old-fashioned one-woman’s-triumph story is set in the late 20s and early 30s and almost could have been made then, too. It’s long and messy, covering all the bases and then some, but it’s also fantastically entertaining. Its 140 minutes feel more like 90.

I described this as a “one-woman’s-triumph” picture, which was kind of glib considering that Changeling plows through every well-known theme in the book. Misogyny, the depth of a mother’s love, police corruption, politics, the death penalty, the power of hope — it’s all here, part of an incredible true story brought to the screen in a straightforward, masterfully crafted prestige picture. There’s none of the grim, unsettling bleakness of Eastwood’s recent films. Oh, there’s darkness, sure, and plenty of it — child murders and the like — but it’s all done over with a reassuring Hollywood gloss. Normally that would annoy me. But Changeling is so darn engrossing, in a basic what-happens-next way, that I couldn’t resist it.

Step One in a movie like this: stack the deck against your protagonist. In a lovely, understated (!) opening, we see Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) together with her young son. He’s a good kid, a bit aloof, hurt when mom is called to work instead of taking him to the movies. Then he disappears. The LAPD, desperate for some good publicity amidst accusations of corruption and brutality (actually, point-blank execution), mount a search and return the boy: only it’s not Walter Collins.

The police and, for reasons that are unclear, the boy both insist that mother and son have been reunited, but Christine — despite taking him home in a moment of bewilderment — knows otherwise. Then more concrete evidence begins to emerge. The boy is inches shorter, for one thing. He’s circumcised. His teacher doesn’t recognize him either. But the police, led in this endeavor by one Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), won’t admit it. They insist that she’s hysterical, a typical woman controlled by her emotions and so incapable of reason. She won’t shut up, so Captain Jones sends her to the psych ward, where she soon finds that she’s crazy no matter what she says or does.

This, mind you, is just the beginning, the set-up. Changeling then branches out in about a half-dozen different directions, ending up in courtrooms and prisons and even a far-off ranch. It’s a wild story, truly stranger than (most) fiction; I often complain that amazing true stories rarely make good movies because they lack dramatic shape, but Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) make this one work by reshuffling archetypes and generating real suspense.

Hellbent on telling every part of this tale, Eastwood turns erratic: one moment he’s regarding atrocities with a cool matter-of-factness, and the next he’s coaxing a totally insane, over-the-top performance from Jason Butler Harner (to reveal the identity of the character would be a spoiler). But the disregard for tonal consistency somehow doesn’t detract from the film. This is a big story, epic, spanning years; this woman went through a lot. Some flailing around on Eastwood’s part is to be expected.

Ultimately, Changeling‘s less conventional elements (I haven’t even mentioned the casting of John Malkovich as an unambiguously good character, which is so unusual it almost seems like a stunt) are overshadowed by its tried-and-tested charms. Christine Collins is a terrific underdog. Captain Jones and the rest of the LAPD are even better villains. There are speeches, and riveting courtroom scenes, and big plot twists. Bad people get what’s coming to them and everyone applauds. This is a mildly strange incarnation of a story Hollywood’s been telling forever. If anyone knows how to tell it well, it’s Clint Eastwood.

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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