Director Clint Eastwood's 2008 CHANGELING, for many, is the worst sort of horror film: a harrowing document of the loss of a child. As I watched the true, heartbreaking story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), I just couldn't imagine the enormity of the pain. I'm not a parent, and I don't imagine this film would be an easy experience for any viewer who might be. Especially knowing that J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay is faithful to the events of corruption and murder in 1928 Los Angeles.
Single mother Collins, a switchboard operator manager, returns home one day to find her young son missing. After several agonizing months, the LAPD reports that the child has been found. When Collins meets Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), Head of the Juvenile Division at the train station, she expects a joyous, tearful reunion. Instead, she finds an imposter, a boy who only ressembles her beloved son in passing. Understandably, Collins is aghast, but there are reporters present, and Jones repeatedly refutes Collins' dismissal: it's been a long time, he's not the same child, etc. Jones is quietly relentless; Collins acquiesces, agreeing to take the boy home "on a trial basis".
There is no doubt;it is not her son. His height doesn't reach that pencil mark on the doorjamb, the one Collins measured with her son in the opening scenes. Collins repeatedly calls the department with her outrage. However, an LAPD appointed doctor comes to the house and explains that a child's spine can shorten after a trauma. He will also summarily dismiss all of Collins' claims. There seems to be a conspiracy, but why? Perhaps not a malicious conspiracy, but instead the wiping of egg off of one's face, or in contemporary parlance, a "CYA". Unfortunately, a department's cover-up of ineptitude will be a woman's hell.
Meanwhile, a local reverend, Gustav Briegleb (John Malcovich), whose weekly radio program is mostly spent decrying the rampant corruption of the local police force, hears about Collins' case. Briegleb is the sort of fellow you want on your side; he's just as determined to expose wrongdoing as the LAPD are to perpetuating it. He meets Collins, but in the interim she will be institutionalized by Jones due to her insistence as to her "son's" identity. We will observe Collins endure a hellish stay at L.A. County Hospital's "psychopathic ward". We will also follow another detective as he apprehends and questions a young Canadian boy as he's about to be deported. As CHANGELING's serpentine events unfold, it will be apparent that Christine's dilemma has more than a bit of commonality with the other case.
The second half of the film details the fallout, the aftermath of the described events. These scenes may give you a bit of relief, watching as the wheels of justice perhaps finally spin. The desire to see Christine receive some vindication is what drives the later scenes of this lengthy picture, and there is no denying the payoff, even if the conclusions are not especially Storybook Happy. That's life. I'm pleased that the filmmakers stuck to history.
Grim meat, this movie. Somber, almost humorless in its storytelling, CHANGELING is far from light entertainment. The very material of the storyline is engrossing from start to finish. Eastwood and his crew pay particular attention to period detail: the drab garments, the ubiquitous cable cars. However, like many recent Eastwood pictures, it is a craftsmanlike drama that is satisfying, yet a bit too pat.
Originally, Ron Howard (still credited as a producer) was to direct. Interestingly, the movie nonetheless plays like something Howard would make. CHANGELING is filled with (and a bit hampered by)big Hollywood moments, such as when Briegleb and colleagues bust in and rescue Collins just before she is subjected to shock treatment in the ward. The sequence even has her saviors yelling at the nurses, a scene I've seen dozens of times, the "I'll have your job if you don't let me through" type. Also, one of Collins' ward mates, a feisty prostitute, utters an empowering, profane line of dialogue which of course Collins will repeat at just the right moment. Scenes such as this are too contrived for me, too written. Christine's story is potent enough without this silliness.
Ms. Jolie is quite fine in the title role, for once not toting a gun or wearing tank tops. She disappears behind floppy period hats and constricting clothing, her face sullen yet always suggesting a dash of hope. Malkovich is excellent, as usual, with the correct forcefulness and brio Briegleb requires. The supporting cast are also well chosen (it's good to see Donovan in something besides Burn Notice, though his mannerisms are similiar here). The "making-of" programs on the DVD show the happy atmosphere Eastwood fostered on his set.
But that got me thinking. You've heard how dictatorial, hardass directors are hell to work with, yet often produce great cinema? Eastwood is not a multiple take guy, he works quickly and without perfectionism. Is that why his films (excepting UNFORGIVEN and some others) are solid but not seminal? Perhaps, but the screenplay is also to blame, in part, for CHANGELING's standard issue feel. As before, I will still recommend the film (unless you're a grieving parent; there's one flashback that is especially unnerving and graphic)with mild enthusiasm. The appropriate tone and professionalism are there. I just wanted something...more..Not dramatic weight, but perhaps dramatic artistry that dispenses with the Syd Mead Screenwriting rulebook.