, 141 min, 2008
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan
Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is an epic mystery drama – absorbing, angering, maddening, sad, oddly hopeful, and inspiring in its way.
Based on a true story, the film stars Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, a telephone company supervisor in 1928 Los Angeles who has a 9-year-old son named Walter. When Christine comes home one night to find Walter missing, her call to file a missing persons report is rebuffed with the “24-hour waiting period” policy. When that period elapses and Christine is finally allowed to file her report, the Los Angeles Police Department seems almost reluctant to be of any assitance. Meanwhile, Christine finds an almost immediate patron in local Reverend and radio personality Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich).
After five weeks, a boy is abandoned in a roadside diner in rural Illinois, and he is brought back to Los Angeles, believed to be the son of Christine. She is immediately certain that it is not, but the police insist. Due to an ever-increasing bad reputation on the part of the police, Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, who plays sinister men on TV all the time; see The Pretender and Millennium) must do everything he can to convince Christine she’s wrong – and then do everything he can to convince her she’s crazy (even after her son’s teacher and dentist both examine the boy and discover it’s not Walter). Indeed, Christine is put in a psychopath ward in the county hospital, where she must fend off a despicable doctor (Denis O’Hare) and take solace in the kindness of a dancer (Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone, continuing a string of great performances).
Meanwhile, perhaps the only respectable detective left, Ybarra (Michael Kelly) stumbles upon what came to be known as the Winesville Chicken Ranch murders, involving a truly evil cretin named Gordon Northcott (the chilling Jason Butler Harner). This is the bit of luck that convinces Ybarra that Christine ain’t crazy, and that the LAPD is the most corrupt law enforcement in the land. This all leads to representation by a kind lawyer named S.S. Hahn (Geoff Pierson) and a court sequence with the vile slug of a police chief Davis (Colm Feore). At 78, Clint Eastwood has, late in life, become one of our finest filmmakers.
After a recent string of prestige pictures, including Mystic River (2003), the Oscar-winning (and deservedly so) Million Dollar Baby (2004), and the twin World War II films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), here is another triumph. Eastwood and writer J. Michael Straczynski (creator of TV’s Babylon 5) could’ve meandered a bit more and given us some background on the psychopathic chicken ranch killer, or focused more on the conspiracy that put Christine in a mental ward, and just about sullied her good name before it was brought down in a court of law, but they wisely keep the focus on the emotions of Christine and her horrific ordeal.
Jolie gives a stunning performance as a mother who has lost her son, and who is banging her head up against a wall at every turn trying to get others on the same page. The film feels like it could’ve been made in the 20s or 30s, with an old-fashioned Universal logo at the outset, and gorgeously time-accurate cinematography by Tom Stern.
The film is 141 minutes long, and feels like it might be longer than necessary to tell this story, yet there’s not one single superfluous scene – a remarkable feat. If I have a quibble, it’s a minor one: the lovely, mournful score composed by Eastwood himself is so self-consciously bleak and omnipresent that you can’t help but be consistently aware of it. Still, this is an involving, affecting and intelligent film that gathers power as it goes on. This is one of the year’s best films.
Note: Nominated for 3 Oscars, including Best Actress.