Changeling (2008): United States – directed by Clint Eastwood
Rated R by the MPAA – contains mature themes, disturbing material, some violence and some language
Changeling is Clint Eastwood tackling a period piece, a crime drama, a murder mystery, an historical account, police corruption, and the mistreatment of women in 1920’s Los Angeles. The film is based on a true story, making certain elements all the more unsavory. But it is an interesting story, and a complicated one, as evidenced by the 141 minute runtime. This is Eastwood at his most bloated, and the numerous plot threads eventually hurt a generally engaging tale.
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a working woman in Los Angeles. She is a hard worker and intelligent, as evidenced by her status as floor supervisor in a call center. She manages the other women, floating around on roller-skates to more quickly help the callers. She has a son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith). His father left when Walter arrived, due to a great fear of responsibility. Christine does her best to care and provide for the boy.
One day she is called in to work unexpectedly and leaves Walter alone for the day. When she returns he is missing. Frantic, she searches the neighborhood. The police inform her that they won’t send someone to investigate for 24 hours after a person has been missing. But the police are hard on the case and after several months they find her son and the family is reunited. Christine faces a shock at the train station, with press gathered around to observe the LAPD doing a bang-up job, when she realizes that the boy they have found is not her son.
This is as much as the trailers for the film reveal, and this a mere 25 minutes into the movie. If you would rather not know more than this, feel free to leave the review until you have seen the film. I was consistently surprised at where the film went after this point, and mostly in a positive manner.
Suffice to say that the rest of the plot revolves around a serial killer who has been abducting young boys. There is a sequence in a mental asylum, sanctioned by the crooked police captain (Jeffrey Donovan), that features the worst nurses since Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’sNest (a role originated in The Snake Pit. Assistance is provided to Christine in the form of a local preacher, Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich). He protests for social reform and rails against the corrupt police force of L.A. in his radio broadcasts. His influence and power come in handy when taking on the vigilante “justice” system imposed by the police and major.
Changeling is “A True Story,” according to an opening title screen. The facts and general outline of the story seem to be intact, and this makes the proceedings that much more effective. While being an historical biography, the film manages to say a great deal about a number of subjects. The most obvious is the battle for justice against corrupt policemen. Christine’s courage and persistence are admirable in the face of extreme persecution. Simultaneously, she has a great deal of trouble being a woman in the system. Her word is discarded immediately and her entire existence is undermined on account of her sex. She must be wrong, because she’s a woman. Of course her son shrank three inches in his few months away; she wouldn’t know because of the stress she has experienced. Jolie manages to capture these nuances effectively without overacting or coming off as melodramatic.
The period aspect of the film is perfectly captured. It seems that Clint had a much larger budget for this film than efforts like Gran Torino [review here], and it shows in every frame. Costumes appear authentic, as do the variety of cars and transportation used. But there are a number of problems with the film that prevent it from attaining greatness. The first is that a number of scenes seem rather forced and obvious. When the police captain rails against Christine it is clear that he’s prejudiced on account of her being a woman, and as he tries to keep up the facade.
The worst problem lies in the structure of the film. At two hours and twenty minutes it has the feel of an epic, but there is no over-arching story driving it. Every forty five minutes the film takes a turn and launches into a brand new segment. As a result there are numerous emotional climaxes, but none is particularly satisfying. Staying more focused on one or two aspects of the story would have created a more powerful motion picture. Still, there is a great deal for fans of powerful historical dramas to enjoy and appreciate.