A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #8


2008, R, 141 mins.

Christine Collins: Angelina Jolie / Rev. Briegleb: John Malkovich / Capt. J.J. Jones: Jeffrey Donovan / Det. Ybarra: Michael Kelly / Chief Davis: Colm Feore / Carol Dexter: Amy Ryan / S.S. Hahn: Geoff Pierson / Dr. Steele: Denis O'Hare / Mayor Cryer: Reed Birney

Directed by Clint Eastwood / Written by J. Michael Straczynski.

Clint Eastwood, now a ripe 78-years-old, is astoundingly hitting a serious stride as a grand filmmaking craftsman.  In a directorial career that has spanned nearly 40 years, it’s kind of amazing how much of a sustained, confident, and ever-growing assured filmmaking voice he still is today.  At an age when most filmmakers put away their viewfinder and call it a career, Eastwood has even more passion and skill than ever, not to mention a Herculean release pace.  

He made one of his finest films of his career and current decade in 2003’s MYSTIC RIVER, the very decent Oscar darling MILLION DOLLAR BABY, and the ambitious, but not faultless, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.  Now comes CHANGELING, his best effort since RIVER and a searing and endlessly thought-provoking true-story L.A.-crime noir that deserves very fitting comparisons to CHINATOWN and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

CHANGELING is an immensely ambitious and epic narrative, but told with tact and Eastwood’s trademark simplicity in execution and focus.  It gives us compelling and intoxicating story on four distinct avenues: It’s (a) a story of a woman desperately searching for her abducted child, (b) a story of early 20th Century police corruption, (c) a heartrending tale of a woman wrongfully imprisoned by a male-dominated society that subverts her gender, and (b) a ghastly and perverse serial killer tale that shocked a nation.  Lesser directors would have fumbled with all of these seemingly disparaging elements, but the wise and cagey veteran in Eastwood manages to makes semblance of it all and fluidly traverses between one story thread to the next.  The film is nearly two and half hours long, but it never feels long, nor rushed and hastily executed: CHANGELING takes its time to allow the film and its themes to simmer with restraint and poise, which allows for the underlining human struggle of the film’s main heroine to gather that much more of a potent emotionally wallop.

The film was written by J. Michael Straczynski, whose previous credits include creating and writing the cult sci-fi series BABYLON 5, where his workmanlike zeal and astounding writing stamina on the show were unparalleled in the annals of TV (incredibly, he wrote 92 of the 110 BABYLON episodes, including an incredible 59-episode run).  He also dabbled in comic books, writing issues of many of Marvel Comics’ mainstays like SPIDER-MAN.  Initially, Straczynski seems like the least appropriate choice to pen CHANGELING, but his Oscar-worthy screenplay here is a marvel at how it chronicles the real life struggles of a woman dealing with the painful abduction of her young son alongside her desperate and often fruitless attempts at convincing a misogynistic society to assist her. 

He dives head-on into the tearful ordeal that she went through, but the script also has time to deal with some of the urban myths of 1920’s Los Angeles, that of romanticized, glamorous, and innocent city.  Straczynski finds the right tone for the film’s story by wisely revealing the city as a place being ruled over by an immoral and despotic political infrastructure including bodies as far ranging as the police, the city government, and even the medical establishment.  All of this is at the expense of the disenfranchisement and wrongful treatment of one lone crusading woman, who courageously seeks to fight a broken system only a few scant years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.  CHANGELING has one of the more grand and empowered scripts in a long time that feels like its going against the grain of other witless Hollywood formulas and conventions (the temptation here would be to do just that with the material), but Straczynski achieves the impossible by playing up to the more sentimentalized aspects of the story without going for cheap, melodramatic effect.  Very little is overly telegraphed, and the story is surprising for how it blooms from a simple abduction yarn and into a layered and meaningful narrative of more far reaching scope and importance.

The woman in question in the film is Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, riveting and convincing at every waking turn), a single mother living in 1928 L.A. that works as a supervisor at a local telephone operators dispatch office.  One day she is forced to come into work and must leave her nine-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith) home alone for the day.  When she returns home she suffers from every mother’s worst nightmare: her son has been abducted.  She calls the police, who matter-of-factly inform her that they can do very little in any missing children’s case for at least 24-hours.  For the hysterically grieving Collins, that is 24 hours too long.

She eventually does get some help from the L.A. police department, led by Police Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore) who publicly vows to find her son ASAP.  Of course, Davis knows that his department is in desperate need of some good PR, seeing that it’s been on the verbal lynchpin of a local Reverend, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich, in a very restrained and quietly strong performance) who lambastes the department on his radio show for its corruption, incompetence, and how Davis’ notorious “Gun Squad” dishes out their own brand of justice. 

Several grueling months go by before Collins is contacted by Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, oozing slimy and contemptuous duplicity, all while appearing to have stolen Guy Pearce’s DNA).  The captain reports that Collin’s child has, in fact, been found.  When the cops arrange for a very public (complete with full media coverage) reunion between Collins and her son – with the police shamefully grandstanding as the heroes – she receives a shock: the boy the police found is not her son.  Yet, the police are strident at the press conference that the boy is her child, and tell her “play nice” for the cameras and to take the lad home on a "trial basis". 

The police’s official explanation for Collins’ reaction is that she is shocked and overwhelmed.  She thinks otherwise.  After she takes the mysterious imposter home she notices that the boy is three inches shorter than her son and has one other physical difference that overwhelmingly proves that the child is not her son.  She goes to visit Captain Jones with the news, but he scornfully tells her to drop her queries and accusations.  He even goes, as far as to send a doctor – on the take from the police, it seems – to go and physically inspect the boy.  What emerges is arguably the film's more discretely shocking and creepily humorous moments, when the doctor explains that the trauma of being abducted has made the boy “shrink”, a cockamamie medical explanation that would have TV’s Gregory House fall over on his cane.

Collins still does not drink the police’s Kool-Aid.  The Reverend Briegleb befriends her, especially when she notices that her name is being brandied about in local newspapers as a crazy loon.  She even gathers more irrefutable evidence that the boy she has is not her son.  When she goes for a final time to condemn the police Captain, Jones has Collins arrested and placed in Los Angeles’ County Hospital’s psychopathic ward…without any legal due process or prosecution.  While there she has the unthinkable task of convincing the ward’s steely eyed and lecherous head doctor that she is not crazy.

Told in parallel to this is the account of another Detective named Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) who goes to apprehend a Canadian runaway who is in the country illegally.  He catches the boy at a nearby ranch, but when he takes him into custody the lad relays the horrendous and scandalous account about how he and his Uncle (Jason Butler Harner, in a twisted and sickeningly evil performance) kidnapped and killed 20 boys.  The catch here is that one of the boys just may have been Collins’ child.  Eventually, a high profile lawyer (played with stern conviction by Geoff Pierson) are able to take the LAPD to hearings to face charges of corruption and their improper handling of Collins, all while the serial killer stands trial for what would be known as “The Wineville Chicken Coop Murder”, one of the most notorious cases in the town’s history.

So far I have gone to great lengths to discuss the film’s story, but I've barely even cracked the real surface.  CHANGELING is so thoroughly successful on so many fronts: The film’s before mentioned outstanding script channels CHINATOWN and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL in the way it condemns a series of systems and institutions that are decaying from the inside out.  Even more so, CHANGELING echoes Eastwood’s own MYSTIC RIVER in the sense of them being thematic companion pieces: both involve unspeakable acts of depravity against children and how the respective communities become tainted and corrupted by the atrocities.

However, the real resonating heartbeat of the film is the overall plight of Collins within the larger framework of societal unrest.  The film could have just been a basic story about a kidnapping and a woman struggling to find her son, but Collins’ story has more penetrating significance in the way it concentrates on how gender politics overpowered her.  The madness and sadness of the film is that it shows how a deeply independent and determined woman was seen as a threat and how forces as far reaching as the police and even psychiatric medicine conspired to subvert her and bring about her disempowerment.  If anything, CHANGELING develops a strong rooting interest in its female protagonist, not just because we want her reunited with her boy, but also I the way it asks us to empathize with her troubled place in history.  The way CHANGELING is able to go well beyond the trappings of an abduction mystery and become a sobering rallying call and commentary on turn of the century female suffrage is to its esteemed credit.

As far ranging and morally complex as the story and themes go, CHANGELING would not work without its strong-footed performances.  Angelina Jolie does such a bravura, tour-de-force job here – much like she did in her intensely underrated Oscar worthy performance in A MIGHTY HEART – portraying Collins' slowly developing intensity and manic frustration, but she also plays the part with subtlety and tact.  She portrays the more emotionally traumatic moments with flare and pulse-pounding passion, but she is also able to avoid grandstanding and Oscar-baiting camera mugging.  She exudes in Collins a simplicity and calm empowerment:  This woman is a real hero for how she suffered and survived her hellish ordeal, and Jolie wisely pays tribute to Collins' unwavering hope, persistence, and courage in one of 2008’s most electrifying and touching performances.  Much as Eastwood has publicly stated, Jolie often gets no respect for being a gifted performer primarily because of how beautiful she is and largely because she is tabloid fodder.  If you excuse all of her public behavior and luminous glamour off camera, it’s easy to see – after watching A MIGHTY HEART and CHANGELING – that she is in a class all to herself.

The other performances all find the right tempo as well.  I especially like how under-cranked Malkovich’s Reverend was, as he – and the script – resisted the urge to paint this deeply religious man as a stereotypical Christian fanatic: here, he’s driven more by a zeal to fight injustice and less by spiritual fundamentalism.  Colm Feore is slick as the Police Chief that shamefully tries to manipulate the media, and Jeffrey Donovan has an unadulterated field day playing a complete slimeball cop that easily garners our intense hatred of him. 

There are three other key performances that are worth emphasizing, the first being Michael Kelly, who has the trickiest acting job of the film of having his dirty detective character undergo a moral change for the better without it seeming incredulous.  Once pulled into the deplorability of the serial killer’s case, he sees the light of day.  Perhaps the film’s strongest moment occurs during the detective’s long and heart-wrenching interrogation of the nephew of the killer (played with such maturity, sincerity, and poise by Eddie Anderson) relays all of his uncle’s twisted plans.  And then there is the serial killer himself, played by Jason Butler Harner as an irreproachably evil and demonic monster. 

Obviously, praise also needs to be thrown in Eastwood’s direction, and CHANGELING once again shows how confident he is a maintaining decorum with all of the film’s divergent threads.  Always well known for his economical film shoots, Eastwood is also able to make CHANGELING’s exquisite period detail look impressive without really dwelling or lingering on picturesque shots too long.  If one excludes his previous two WWII pictures, CHANGELING just may be Eastwood’s most impressive technical film to date, as he uses Tom Stern’s atmospheric cinematography, the impeccable art direction, costume, and set design, along with subtle CGI effects to create a painstakingly redolent portrayal of the times.  Eastwood also serves up the film’s music score, which is soft, quiet, and isolated in the background and thankfully serves not to overwhelm viewers by telling them when the big payoffs of the story are occurring.  Perhaps even more noteworthy is how Eastwood does not fall into the trap of being sensationalistic with the story of the killer.  A less competent director would have chosen to be viscerally graphic and unsettling with the details, but Eastwood lets the thoughts of the audience fill in the blanks.  He leaves many of the sordid details of the vicious murders up to our imaginations, which makes the tension created in the scenes that much more provocative.  Like Hitchcock, Eastwood understands how audience anticipation for the unsettling can craft terror. 

If there were any minor faults with CHANGELING then it firstly is with a side character played briefly by the great Amy Ryan (so memorable in her Oscar nominated turn in GONE BABY GONE) as a woman that befriends Jolie in the mental hospital (her scenes and character could have easily been excised, or developed a bit further).  Secondly, I think the film sidesteps and downplays any level of guilt or personal responsibility that Collins must have felt for leaving her son home alone that led to his inevitable abduction.  Alas, those are very minor quibbles, because CHANGELING is a masterfully mounted film that relays a painful and touching true-life parable of personal conviction, persecution and oppression.  It tells a story of a simple woman trapped in a complex web of nearly impenetrable societal odds to find peace within herself and justice in the larger scheme of things.  Very few films have been so simultaneously uplifting and unsettling, and Eastwood and screenwriter Straczynski do an impeccable job of telling a classic Hollywood crime noir while not falling prey to rudimentary Hollywood conventions.  This is one of 2008’s most unforgettably accomplished moving films.

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