Meet 2008’s unheralded masterpiece: Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, which opened to modest reviews and little fanfare at Cannes in May and in the US in October, causing (perhaps) Warner Bros. to move up the release date of the director’s next film – Gran Torino (coming to Prague Feb. 19) – in order to get their Eastwood Oscar fix.
Nevertheless, Changeling is a film that really delivers – compelling story, gorgeous production design, excellent performances, even a haunting, memorable score by Clint himself – and deserves to be ranked among the director’s best, and among the best LA period dramas, a genre which includes Chinatown and L.A. Confidential.
Set in 1928 Los Angeles, Angelina Jolie stars as Christine Collins, a switchboard floor manager who returns home from work one day to find her 9-year-old son has vanished without a trace. She does what any parent would do: combs the neighborhood before phoning the police, who, expectedly, tell her a day has to pass before a child can be reported missing.
The LAPD, under public scrutiny with charges of corruption bandied about the airways by local radio preacher Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), show up the next day and do their job. But weeks pass, and then months. And then Christine gets a call: her son has been found in Illinois.
Only, it isn’t her son. But he claims to be, and the story is too good for LA police to pass up as they present the child to Christine in front of hounds of reporters and photographers. She knows immediately he isn’t the right boy, of course.
“Take him home for a trial period,” the police tell her. She does, and notices the boy is inches shorter than her son, and circumcised (her son wasn’t). Doctors and teachers confirm he’s the wrong boy.
Christine goes back to the police, pleading with them to continue to look for her boy: “why would we look for a child who has already been found?” Capt. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) asks her. So she gets some assistance from Briegleb – who uses her plight to fuel his crusade against the corrupt LAPD – and when she becomes a nuisance for the police, they toss her in the loony bin.
And then, well – what did happen to her son? The movie takes an unexpected detour to examine a possibility. I don’t want to say much about this detour – it certainly caught me off guard – but the film slowly becomes less about the missing child, and begins to cover a much wider range of injustices. I will say this: Jason Butler Harner creates an absolutely chilling character I won’t soon forget, reminiscent of Scott Wilson’s Dick Hickock in Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood.
Performances are excellent, in every role, no matter how small. This is the best Jolie has ever been; the role is similar to her one in A Mighty Heart, but quieter and effectively subdued.
I also appreciated the care and depth with which each of these characters is painted: Briegleb may have the best intentions, but he’s still using Christine for his own crusade; Jones may be perpetuating evil, but we still see a side to him that seems to regret what he’s doing; even Northcott seems to have a human side, which makes him all the more terrifying.
This is writer J. Michael Straczynski’s first theatrical feature (a long list of TV credits includes Babylon 5) and reveals a kind of blissful ignorance of the Hollywood clichés and structure that allows him to stay remarkably close to the actual events. This is, incredibly, a true story.
The film looks flawless, with Tom Stern’s cinematography lingering over lovingly, painstakingly recreated period detail; it’s so refreshing in this age of hundreds of millions spent on CGI to see a film that really looks good.
Eastwood has been on one hell of a winning streak; Changeling, along with Gran Torino, makes, by my count, six consecutive films in six years of varying levels of greatness. He’s one of the very few directors (in the history of cinema) to have been granted final cut by a major Hollywood studio, and while he’s never abused it, I doubt that this movie would have been allowed to keep its ending under another director.
It’s flat-out unsatisfying in traditional cinema terms (and the film has taken a lot of unwarranted flak for it), but so true-to-life that it brought tears to my eyes; this is a film born not only out of respect for its characters, but of a deep, caring love for them as well.
Changeling is the best of both worlds: the kind of immaculately produced period drama that only Hollywood can produce, and the kind of harrowing true-life story they so rarely do.