You may be asking yourself "What, beyond the title, is the connection to the new Clint Eastwood film "Changeling"? I'll get to that. Bear with me.
Eastwood is an accomplished director, a dependable actor and a pretty good musician. As he has aged, he has concentrated more time behind the camera, creating some great films for our enjoyment. He has even won Oscars for directing "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby", both extremely powerful films. Now, he turns his attention to the film "Changeling" starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich and written by J. Michael Stracyncski.
Christine Collins (Jolie) is a single mom living with her son, Michael, in a small house in South Pasadena. As a supervisor of an exchange for the phone company, she keeps busy, but is able to get home early enough to provide a loving home for her child. One evening, work calls, ruining their plans for a fun Saturday. She reluctantly leaves Walter, her son, home alone, promising to take him to the movies the next day. As it is 1928, and most of the neighbors leave their doors unlocked, she isn't too concerned. But when she returns, Walter is nowhere to be found. She frantically calls the police and they cut her off. She is instructed to call back when Michael has been missing for more than 24 hours. The next day, she is able to file a report. A few weeks later, she receives a call from Captain JJ Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, TV's "Burn Notice") and he takes her to the train station for the return of her son. With reporters in tow, Jones and his boss, Chief Davis (Colm Feore) are eager for a positive press opportunity; the LAPD has been under attack for some time. As soon as Christine sees the boy, she knows he isn't her son and tells Jones this. But he insists he is the right boy and pressures her to smile for the cameras. Christine takes the boy in, but continues to deny he is her son. As the police department trots one ridiculous theory after another by her, Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a powerful Presbyterian Minister with a radio show, intends to help Christine and help expose more corruption at the LAPD, something he has made his mission.
John Malkovich is always at least interesting and in "Changeling" he is quite good. As the powerful preacher Reverend Briegleb, he recognizes an opportunity with Ms. Collins, preaching to his congregation about her plight, even though he has never met her and she isn't one of his parishioners. But in his eyes, anyone treated poorly by the LAPD is a parishioner and deserves his help and protection. When he learns of the new boy the LAPD is trying to push into her arms, and the actions they take to ensure she remain 'out of the press', he becomes more galvanized, more determined than ever to help the innocent, sweet young single mother.
Malkovich could so easily portray this powerful figure as overtly power hungry, very sinister and as corrupt as the LAPD. But Malkovich paints the Presbyterian pastor's mission well, showing the zeal with which this man is determined to expose the corruption of the LAPD. There is a hint at the power this man has and seeks, but it only helps to flesh out the rest of the character. There is an underlying sense that the more helpful the person is to his mission, to his cause, the more powerfully he embraces them.
I was also struck by how believable Anjelina Jolie is in this role. Early on, when she is at the police station, trying to convince Captain Jones she knows who her real son is, a man touches her on the shoulder, guiding her towards another room. In this moment, Collins is about as insignificant as she can be, and Jolie seems to shrink in on her self and become extremely vulnerable; her arms move in front of her chest and she looks down, unsure of where to go. This struck me as remarkable because Jolie's real life persona is that of a very strong woman. She has played "Lara Croft", she has been an UN Ambassador, she looks like she could kick Brad Pitt's butt. But in "Changleing", she portrays Collins' place in the world, in Los Angeles, circa 1928, very well, making the woman seem believable and insignificant, until pushed too far.
As she realizes the LAPD will not be any help (they send a pediatrician to her house to convince her her son could have shrunk four inches and other physical changes are possible, much to her disbelief) she becomes more determined than ever to get her real son back and to make waves for the LAPD. But the LAPD has some tricks up their sleeves and they put Collins through the ringer. As Collins is subjected to all of this different abuse, she turns to the Reverend for help.
The LAPD is run by Chief Davis (Colm Feore) and he is desperate for the department to get as much good publicity as possible. When Collins proves too persistent, he instructs Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the head of the department dealing with juvenile matters to make her go away. So Jones starts off by threatening Collins. When that doesn't work, he ratchets the persuasion up and makes Collins life hell.
Donovan does a great job or portraying Jones swagger and arrogance. As a male, in the LAPD, he sees no wrong in coercing Ms. Collins into accepting a boy she knows is not her own. As Collins becomes more persistent, he feels the mounting pressure to make her disappear and goes to some pretty horrific and stupefying lengths to stop her.
But the "Changeling" becomes too much of a procedural, robbing the story of some of its power. We spend a lot of time watching a suspicious character who may be responsible for the disappearance of Christine's son. He is an interesting character, and he becomes more interesting when he interacts with Christine, late in the film. But until that point, he seems like a distraction. We spend a lot of time watching police officers interrogate children who may be involved in the case. They tell stories that help to fill in blanks, but as they are telling stories, the narrative becomes compromised as we watch lengthy flashbacks. We spend a lot of time in court as two different cases are deliberated. We spend a lot of time away from Christine and the Reverend, a lot of time away from Captain Jones. A lot of time away from the three most interesting people in the film.
The film is much better, much more powerful as we spend time with Christine, the Reverend and Captain Jones. These characters are each powerful and each unique and help to guide us through the story. When the focus shifts away from them, the film becomes more like "Law and Order: Historical Crimes Unit" showing us every detail of this exhaustive case. And many of these details don't add significantly to the overall story and the tapestry of these characters and their involvement in the crime.
Eastwood seems determined to live up to the title card "A True Story" which appears at the beginning of the film. Most movies state, "Based on a True Story". Not Eastwood. If he says "A True Story", he is going to show us as much as possible relating to this terrible crime. And a lot of this shifts us away from Jolie and the emotion of her character's story.
And the film is too long. As the film tries to tie up each individual string of the story, going so far as to introduce us to another couple that have lost a child and showing us the outcome of that story, it takes too long for us to feel any closure to Christine's story. If there can be any closure.
Also, there seemed to be about sixteen too many shots of Jolie with a tear falling down her cheek, a tear addressed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a tear determined to get the actress another Oscar.
"Changeling" is not one of Eastwood's best films. The story doesn't stay focused in the right place throughout. And because of this, it loses its power. When you look at Eastwood's work, there are many unforgettable, many powerful films that we will remember for years to come. I doubt "Changeling" will have the same longevity. If someone were to ask me about "Changeling" in say, a year, I would probably start telling them about a horror film I saw in 1980, a film that scared me, a film that had an effect on me, a film that I remember to this day.
I don't think Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" will have the same fate.