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Movie Review: Changeling

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Few corruption cases have been as baffling as the one presented in Clint Eastwood’s film, Changeling. What went through the minds of those L.A. police officers who were so blindsided with boosting their public image that they tried to fool a mother that a completely different boy is her long-missing son? Despite the all too obvious and overwhelming evidence of this new child not matching her son’s, the police department refused to listen and skirted every which way to only cover their public image. When she was about to go public with her plight, they locked her up in a mental asylum and threw away the key so that no one would listen to her.

Clint Eastwood’s latest is based on these true but somewhat forgotten events in the late 1920s to 1930s. As a director who has grown more ambitious and prolific with age, he also seems ever more deliberate to place a photo-negative on the various action roles he played as an actor in the past. I am actually surprised he waited this long to dramatize a real-life case as a representation of the kind of police corruption that Dirty Harry Callahan would certainly have understood and been further disgruntled with.

The movie stars Angelina Jolie as the mother, Christine Collins, a telephone operator and single mother to nine-year-old Walter (Gattlin Griffith). One afternoon in March 1928, coming home after filling in for another employee at work, she finds that her son has disappeared. She frantically calls the police only to be told that their policy is that they do not consider a boy missing until after 24 hours. Days and months pass, as various people around her pray for his safe return, including Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who makes radio broadcasts criticizing and condemning the corrupt deeds of the Los Angeles police department. Then, news arrives that her son has been found in Illinois and will be brought back by Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan).

When she sees the boy at the train station, however, she immediately sees that this boy (Devon Conti) they have brought back is not her son. Jones assures her this is really him, as the boy recalls the Collins home address. She reluctantly takes him home until she sees the aforementioned sign of this boy being a full three inches shorter. When she goes to confront Jones about this and how they are wasting precious time to look for her real son, he snidely accuses her of avoiding returning to her motherly responsibilities. Even when a psychiatrist comes over, he only harasses her, saying that this is indeed Walter after providing a phony explanation for the height difference.

She gets further evidence supporting her claim from the family dentist (who immediately recognizes that the dental records do not match) and Walter’s school teacher and her class, who do not recognize this new boy. Just before she is about to go on one of Briegleb’s broadcasts with this information, however, Jones orders that she be placed in the mental hospital under the care of Dr. Jonathan Steele (Denis O’Hare). There, Christine meets another patient, Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan) and sees that most every woman in the ward has been put there to keep quiet. Meanwhile, Briegleb, catching on to her sudden absence, soon steps in as a crusading ally for Christine.

All of these proceedings uncoil in the movie as a nightmare that is really too strange for fiction and are eventually linked to the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop Murders at the hands of Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner). As always, Eastwood, working from a screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski (best known for the sci-fi TV show, Babylon 5), directs and presents his story in the sparest way possible. He depends on the basics of character interaction to reflect the power of a scene and his camera (shooting with his regular cinematographer, Tom Stern in a drained-out color palette bordering on black and white as in Brain De Palma’s The Black Dahlia and Eastwood’s last great film, Letters from Iwo Jima) only looks and discerns without an extraneous stylistic device. Also, his recreation of the 1920s and 30s L.A. streets with cable cars are flawless, although the musical score by Eastwood, while effectively subtle, at times seems closer to the 1940s.

Where the film and the screenplay show some limitations that prevent this movie from being in the first rank of Eastwood’s directorial career is in the final act. There are many details to cover from the mother’s loss to the deepening corruption from the police chief, James E. Davis (Colm Feore) and Jones and the serial killer and they are certainly all part of the whole historical telling. Yet the screenplay feels too disjointed in checking off these points to finish in a clean emotional sweep. The story struggles to tie up all its loose ends with multiple resolutions, and though I see why the movie ends on the note it does, it should have stayed closer to the heroine’s direct emotional perspective to give it greater impact rather than getting mired in the procedural minutiae in the end. And the tone of the ending, while not entirely upbeat, is still a bit too neat and reassuring considering that this was only one of many cases of corruption in the police department.

As usual, however, Eastwood gets uniformly strong, memorable performances out of his cast that carry the film past its problems. Jolie thankfully seems to returning to her acting roots and with A Mighty Heart and now this movie she may become the go-to actress to essay maternal figures that maintain patient grace under pressure during familial loss. It is also nice to see Malkovich play a really positive portrait of a preacher who not only sermonizes but backs up his sermons with action. And Amy Ryan, coming off her much-acclaimed role in Gone Baby Gone, so conceals her real-life beauty again to play a disheveled sister character to the one that Jolie won an Oscar for in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted. Even the child actors including Gattlin Griffith, Devon Conti, and Sanford Clark as a teenager who comes forward with crucial information on the crime, play some very tricky notes of traumatic emotional breakdown and poker-faced deception impeccably. Also deserving mention is Michael Kelly, a character actor who specializes in playing a slime ball but here is allowed to portray the first cop in the story who realizes his proper duties after gazing through the prism of evil.

While the other villains in the story including Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore are also very solid, the best performance in the film comes from the least known actor, Jason Butler Harner as the murderous Northcott. Many films seek to psychoanalyze the crazed motivations of a serial killer but Harner somehow pulls off the more difficult challenge of just inhabiting the murderous insanity without calling out for any kind of explanation or understanding. That the character’s self-loathing is rendered so scarily despite the movie’s background omission of the more sordid details of the involvement of his mother (whom he later discovered was actually his grandmother as he was the result of incest between his father and sister) is a tribute to Harner’s work here.

All of this ties back to the old LAPD to which the film asks the inevitable, angry question, “Could the boy have been found and/or the killer actually stopped if they didn’t so firmly deceive even themselves?” For all the TV shows from the 1940s and '50s that glamorized the department as following their own motto, “To serve and protect,” cases like this one proved that what they were serving and protecting was not always the public citizens. And something people don’t learn enough of time and time again is the fact that one would do better to boost public image by properly and honestly leveling with the public rather than refusing to empathize with basic feelings like the wounding loss of a child.

Bottom line: Well worth seeing.

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