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Movie Review: Changeling

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It has been said that the best stories come from real life. Now even though that doesn’t bode well for something like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, it nonetheless is true for Clint Eastwood’s latest, Changeling. This is a truly real, classically made, nuts and bolts motion picture that compels from start to finish.

Based on a true story, Changeling is about a woman, Christine Collins, who one day comes home from work to find her young son missing. She immediately calls the police and an investigation is soon launched. After a few months the police say they’ve found her son and make arrangements to bring him home to his mother. However upon seeing the boy, Christine realises that the police have made a mistake and it’s not in fact her  son, even though the police insist that he is.

Clint Eastwood has always been a very structured filmmaker. He has said numerous times that he doesn’t like flashy techniques or special ways of filming any given scene. He’s always been about letting the story and the characters do the talking, and this is very much evident with Changeling. And since he often works from stories that are based partially on real life events this mentality works very well. One could argue that it’s never worked as well as it does with Changeling. No one can look you in the eyes with a straight face and say that Eastwood is a bad director — just look at a couple of his most recent efforts, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. He has such a grasp of what makes not just a worthwhile movie, but a through and through film. This is one of the most competent directors working today and he applies his decades of experience, both in front of and behind the camera, with great conviction.

The script, penned by TV screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (The Twilight Zone, Babylon 5), encompasses many elements which all merge together rather exquisitely. First of all the task of taking on such a tragic story is a tough one on its own and he makes it into something not only that we can empathize with but also he makes us feel part of the film’s world. It’s set in the late 1920s and the film does a magnificent job of capturing of that time period. Everything from the period garb to the surrounding buildings and cars are all so authentic that at times you forget you’re watching a movie that’s been made in the 21st century and not an actual movie from back then.

The film not only has this harrowing story for its basis but it takes us to places we couldn’t have imagined at the outset. Not to give too much away, but it starts off like LA Confidential and ends up more like The Silence of the Lambs. The cinematography (by Tom Stern, who photographed such movies as American Beauty, Road To Perdition, and Eastwood’s own Unforgiven), even when some pretty grizzly things are taking place on screen, is absolutely gorgeous and this again makes us feel part of early 20th century Los Angeles.

People often forget just how good an actress Angelina Jolie really is. Her acting talent gets unjustly overlooked in lieu of her celebrity status. Let’s not forget this is an Oscar-winning actress who puts in top-notch performances when she picks the right roles (see Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart — she was amazing in that). And she’s also brilliant here, giving arguably her best performance to date and one which should easily nab her at least a nomination once Oscar season rolls around again.  She’s very much the focus here (although it does stray from her story somewhat during the last quarter) and with the exception here of a very good John Malkovich, she’s untouchable as far as her performance goes.

Changeling is more emotionally compelling than most films released this calendar year. Only rivaled by There Will Be Blood and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, this is gripping drama that takes you on a roller coaster of emotions throughout its lengthy but never boring 140 minute runtime. It’s never what you would call an easy watch and some scenes may even shock some people. But if it’s necessary, as it certainly is here, you can’t exactly hide what really happened if you’re using the term “based on a true story” as a selling point. It’s certainly often a tough watch but nevertheless rewarding.

Changeling does countless things right but a few wrong; it brings in one or two too many side plots that either don’t matter enough to spend time on or aren’t fully resolved, but these are irrelevant when you consider the bigger picture. Resisting the temptation to resolve itself too much, the film is open-ended, leaving the viewer at once satisfied and yearning for more. And this is a measure of how much the film holds you, how much it keeps your attention focused, and how much it draws emotion from you that other more mediocre films of late might have made you forget you even had. Where this sits in the body of Mr Eastwood’s work is hard to say but it's absolutely undeniable that it's a reminder of just how good a filmmaker he is.

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  • Jack

    I don’t agree the film has too many – or even any – side plots. All the story strands relate ultimately to the main one – Christine’s quest to find out what happened to her son. And a minor correction if I may. Jack Green was the cinematographer who shot Unforgiven, not Tom Stern. Otherwise an excellent review.

    One thing that most impressed me about Changeling was how well Eastwood’s film kept my attention. From an editing perspective it’s a top notch piece of work. There weren’t any saggy moments or scenes that felt as though they could have been trimmed, which, in a two hour & 21 minute movie was quite something.

    Aside from anything else Changeling struck me as a potent reminder of the sheer pleasure to be had from watching the proverbial good story well told. I found its themes & concerns – particularly the way a mother is blamed for her child’s welfare by incompetent/corrupt authority figures – deeply & troublingly resonant. It seems to me that no other living American director can match Eastwood right now. The man is simply in a class of his own.

  • Wendy

    Such a nice review! This movie wasn’t perfect, indeed it was quite flawed in many aspects, but there was something about it that left me breathless by the time the credits started rolling. And I’m not easily impressed! This was a trademark Clint Eastwood film, but I felt it was very different from his other works such as Million Dollar Baby. For once, I had no problem with Angelina Jolie’s acting – so powerful yet understated – although her character was too saintly for my taste. Finally, Hollywood did something right!

    Above all, it was the story that had the biggest impact on me, and I hope I can find a movie or book as good as Changeling. As soon I finished watching the movie in the theater, I rushed home to look up the real story. It’s truly devastating.

    If you’re a fan of the movie Changeling and want to know the backstory of Sanford Clark and Gordon Northcott, I just learned that writer Anthony Flacco has a publishing deal with Sterling for The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders. It’s being described as a psychological thriller written in cooperation with the adult living son of Sanford Clark. The book, I’m told, will be out in Fall ’09.