While I’ve never been able to buy into the idea that Clint Eastwood is one of the great filmmakers—I rate his Million Dollar Baby (2004) as the most embarrassing choice for a Best Picture Oscar ever made—I’ve always admired the fact that he has continued to make his rather old-fashioned movies his way. I may not be in sympathy with his aesthetic (if I never hear another piano-tinkling jazz musical score again, that’ll be fine with me), but I’d never deny his status as a serious artist. And I have to admit that his latest film, Changeling—despite a number of problems—is one of his best works. This is largely due to the strength of the source material, which may be part of the problem, too, since there’s just too much of it packed into the film.
Changeling is based on two—if not three—related historical events. The setup story is entirely focused on the disappearance of Christine Collins’ (Angelina Jolie) son, Walter (TV actor Gattlin Griffith), and the efforts of the LAPD to foist another boy (newcomer Devon Conti) on her as Walter. The idea is that locating the boy will provide the transparently corrupt department with much-needed good press. There’s a pretty obvious flaw in their plan, however, since the boy claiming to be Walter isn’t him and doesn’t fool Collins for a moment. Nevertheless, she takes the boy from Captain J.J. Jones (TV actor Jeffrey Donovan) for what the latter calls a “trial basis” by playing on her sympathies (“He has no place else to go”). This, of course, leads to Collins being photographed with her “returned child.”
Evidence mounts that this is not the boy—he’s circumcised, and Walter wasn’t; his teeth don’t match the dental records etc.—but the police are determined to stick to their story. They discredit Collins at every turn, calling her an unfit mother and railroading her into an insane asylum (which seems to exist solely for the purpose of getting rid of women who have inconvenienced the LAPD). Fortunately, Collins has a supporter in radio evangelist Rev. Gustav Brieglub (John Malkovich), who specializes in exposing the corruption of the police department.
In the meantime, Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly, Loggerheads) is sent on a seemingly routine case involving the deportation of a Canadian boy, Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson, TV’s One Life to Live). This leads to something else: the discovery of serial killer Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner, Next), who has been responsible for the murders of 20 boys on his chicken ranch in Wineville, Calif. Among the boys Clark identifies as having been kidnapped and taken to the ranch is Walter Collins—something the department wants to bury, despite Ybarra’s efforts to the contrary.
The problem with the film trying to weave all of these threads into a single story is that it causes the movie to shift tone several times. Is this a mother-love drama? A police-corruption exposé? A crime thriller? It’s all these things—as well as a pretty shameless Oscar bid for Angelina Jolie. And it makes for a somewhat meandering movie that seems ready to end nearly as many times as the last Lord of the Rings movie, and would probably benefit from losing 20 to 30 minutes of running time. (It could lose about 10 minutes just by cutting half the number of times Jolie screams, “He’s not my son!”) Unfortunately, it’s as if Eastwood is so fascinated by the material (which is understandable) that he insists on showing us everything—some of which is at least a little embellished for effect. That would matter less if the film didn’t open with the title, “This is a true story.”
The hubris evidenced by that opening statement is pretty astounding—especially in a movie that tries to establish its 1928-period cred by using the old spinning Lucite-globe Universal logo that didn’t exist till 1937. That may be nit-picking, but it’s symptomatic of a film that’s demonstrably not a “true story,” but is instead fairly closely based on one. Aspects of the serial killer have been (thankfully) simplified and telescoped, while the film stacks the deck with attempts at outraging the viewer over what happens to Christine Collins. Sure, torturing her with electroshock treatment fills the viewer with righteous indignation, but 1928 is a little early for that to have happened. It’s appalling enough that the police had this kind of power without goosing the snake-pit quotient. It’s obvious that Eastwood thinks he’s made a film to equal Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), but it ends up feeling closer to Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006) without being as much overheated fun.
Personally, I had problems with the Jolie character and Jolie’s performance. It feels completely geared to showcase a series of emotional set pieces of the two-fisted school of Oscar-bait acting. As written, the film left me with no real sense of the character. She’s a doting mother, an efficient employee and a formidable, strong-willed adversary, but what else? Who is she really? Is this all there was to her? For me, at least, she remains a cipher, despite Jolie’s powerhouse of emoting.
In spite of my reservations about Changeling, I do recommend the film. It’s at the very least solid filmmaking coming from a single personal vision. Plus, the material is sufficiently compelling to override most of the film’s problems. In short, it’s a great story, but only a good film. Rated R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.