Changeling (2008): Eastwood Directs Angelina Jolie in Period Piece

Cannes Film Fest 2008 (In Competition)–Clint Eastwood has almost done it again. Dramatically and artistically, his period thriller, “Changeling,” based on an actual case that helped bring down a corrupt police force and ushered an era of greater equality, is not as good as his Oscar-winning features, “Mystic River” in 2003 and “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004, but the movie is emotionally effective even if it’s too conventional and old-fashioned.

Though set in a particular socio-cultural context–Los Angeles in 1928-1930, with an epilogue in 1935–Changeling is a gripping, well acted picture that bears contemporary meanings due to a set of issues that continue to resonate in our lives today: the sacredness of the family, the ineffectiveness and corruption of our “guardian” institutions–police force, political machine, welfare agencies, mental asylums-above all, the dignity deserved by any individual regardless of class and race.

Add to it a strong female protagonist, played by Angelina Jolie, who begins as a misfit and weakling only to find strong reserves within herself and become a heroine, and you also have a film about the nascent feminist movement, full of insights about the position of women (and other minorities) in society then and with strong implications for their status today.

Clearly on a roll over the past decade, in which he has helmed “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and the back-to-back war companion pieces, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Eastwood is like an old French wine, the more senior he gets in age, the better, deeper, and more resonant is his work.

At 78, Eastwood is at the prime of his career. With the notable exception of John Huston, who did some good films in his 70s and up to his death (“Wise Blood,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Dead,” his very last picture), it’s hard to think of another major American director who has continued to evolve and sharpen his already commanding skills by applying them to such a diversity of genres.

The collaboration of Eastwood with his long-time crew of cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Joel Cox, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (who comes from journalism and TV) and actress Angelina Jolie, who gives a strong dramatic performance, results in one of the more enjoyable films to be seen in Cannes Fest. The world premiere I attended was greeted with lengthy standing ovation and hearty applause.

Cerebral critics will fault “Changeling” for being too simplistic and conventional. After all it’s a tale of social injustice and corruption, mixed with severe condemnation of our correctional institutions and scenes set in courthouse and asylum that recall such classic Hollywood movies of the 1940s as “The Snake Pit,” with Olivia De Havilland in the lead.

As a result of the clear-cut division between heroes and villains, “Changeling” lacks the moral ambiguity that prevailed in Eastwood’s better features, “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” and “Million Dollar Baby.” “Changeling” is a well-made picture with a beginning, middle, and a rather satisfying coda that’s made to order for Oscar’s middlebrow voters.

Universal will bow the film in October, the prime season for “serious” movies and Oscar contenders. With critical support from mainstream reviewers and the right handling, “Changeling” has a good chance to receive multiple Oscar nominations in important categories: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, and several Supporting Actors. (I realize this is only late May, but the same prediction was made in this column last year out of Cannes Fest for the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” and Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell”).

Before I begin my analysis, a word about the title and context of viewing Eastwood’s movie. In French, the film is called “L’echange,” which translates into “The Exchange,” a more apt title than “The Changeling,” which brings connotations of the horror genre. During Cannes, the studio decided to omit the “The” and the film is now officially called “Changeling.”

It just happened that I saw “Changeling” right after a screening of James Gray’s “Two Lovers,” which also played in the main competition. Eastwood’s work would have shone in any context, but coming after yet another disappointing film from Gray, the contrast was all the more striking (Yes, I know, Gray is much younger, and has made only four films, but he shows few signs of improvement).

The saga begins on a sunny Saturday morning in a modest home in a working class suburb of Los Angeles, when single mother Christine Collins (Jolie) takes her nine-year old son Walter to school, then continues to ride on the same bus to her job as telephone operator. The next day, when a co-worker gets sick and a replacement is needed, Christine violates her promise to spend the day with Walter and take him to the movies (a new Chaplin film) and instead goes to work. Though upset, Walter claims that he can take of himself and that he is not afraid of the dark. Hours later, when Christine returns home, she faces the worst nightmare a parent can experience, her son has vanished without a trace; the lunch she had prepared for him is still in the fridge.

The initial search proves fruitless. Devastated, Christine refuses to accept the new reality and yet begins to realize that Walter might never be found. However, four months later, when a boy claiming to be Walter is discovered in DeKalb, Illinois, Christine waits with bated breath. The police claim that letters and photos were exchanged, and the authorities believe the missing person case had been solved. In fact, the LAPD organizes a public photo-op reunion of the anxious mother and found son. Hoping to put a stop to the scrutiny surrounding their inability to solve this (and other) case, and desperate for uplift to counter the string of corruption scandals, the department hopes the reunion would spell public redemption for the top brass.

Bewildered by the turns of events and swirl of cops, reporters, and photographers, Christine is persuaded to take the boy home. Confused and disoriented, she agrees, and the case is closed. Or is it? The “only” problem is, the child who arrives “home” is not Walter. The evidence is right there: the boy is three inches shorter (Christine had the habit of measuring Walter’s height against the wall) and he is circumcised. Moreover, dental examination offers contradictory facts, and the boy can’t remember his teacher’s name, or his regular seat at the classroom.

Despite her immediate and repeated declarations that the boy is not Walter, Christine is rebuffed by Captain J. J. Jones, the officer in charge. She is told-in what was recounted from the City Council hearing transcripts–to “try him for a couple of weeks.”

From the first moment of reencountering the boy, Christine’s emotions are conflicted. In her inner heart, she knows the boy is not her Walter, yet told that he is poor and homeless, she’s expected to take care of him. In one wonderfully acted scene, Christine runs the gamut of emotions of torturing and screaming at the boy (“you’re a damn liar”) to moments later going to his room and comforting him, letting the better side of her, her maternal instincts, take over.

While pressuring the authorities to keep looking for her real son, Christine learns some harsh realities about the position of women in Prohibition-era Los Angeles, particularly single women of the lower class. It’s in these chapters that the film’s real dramatic conflicts unfold. Women are not supposed to challenge the system and its institutions. Like other femmes (and minorities), Christine is subjected to rigid stereotyping: She is slandered as unfit mother, sexually deviant, a delusional paranoid who lies to the press.

Fortunately, Christine finds an ally in Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a community activist who helps her fight the city authorities in looking for her missing son. Unfazed, the Reverend mobilizes action, orchestrates public demonstrations, and later storms the asylum where Christine is illegally incarcerated.

Eastwood and his scenarist are good at showing the workings (and corruption) of the police department, the political machine, and the welfare agencies, forces that question Christine’s sanity. They also don’t neglect the public’s thirst for sensationalism, the eagerness for happy (fairy-tale like) endings to problems. Closure, any kind of closure, is far more important than truth, namely, whether or not Walter is Christine’s son.

Bridging the personal and the political domains, the filmmakers place the case against the broader context of Los Angeles in its formative era, during years of various scandals, such as the kidnapping of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1926. Polanski’s seminal film noir “Chinatown,” about city corruption vis–vis real estate and water supply, is set a few years later, in the early Depression.

Back in 1928, L.A. was in the grips of a despotic political infrastructure, led by Mayor George E. Cryer and enforced by Police Chief James E. “Two Guns” Davis (often photographed in gunslinger poses with his weapons) and his sanctioned gun squad that terrorized the city. That despotic rule began to unravel with the Christine and other cases. After months of fruitless searching, the police had nothing to show, save an onslaught of negative publicity and mounting public pressure to find a solid lead in the kidnapping.

What counts the most in “Changeling” is the dramatic center: The gripping tale of a scandal and the emergence of a new type of heroine. In her indefatigable search, and through dealing with various insurmountable obstacles, Christine evolves into an unlikely, almost reluctant heroine, a spokesperson for the poor and downtrodden individuals who have been consistently and methodically abused, ignored, and swept aside by the police, political, and other bureaucracies.

In her one-woman quest, Christine joins a whole line of American working class heroines, such as Norma Rae (Sally Field), Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), and most recently Charlize Theron as a coal miner activist in “North Country.” Each of these women is an idiosyncratic individual in her own right–they don’t represent the same type. However, they all share the notion of misfit, disenfranchised women who embark on a journey of self-discovery through which they commit themselves to a larger cause than their personal problems. In this respect, “Changeling” could have easily been retiteld “Christine Collins.”

Thematically, “Changeling” bears resemblance to Agnieszka Holland’s French film, “Olivier, Olivier” (1992), the fact-based account of a country couple whose son mysteriously disappears and then reappears six years, as well as Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone,” which also revolves around the missing of a young girl and the police role in her kidnapping. Linking those two pictures is the great Amy Ryan, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing the irresponsible mother in “Gone Baby Gone.” In “Changeling,” Ryan plays Carol Dexter, a fellow innocent prisoner, a foul-mouthed but decent whore ho helps Christine during her lockdown in a mental ward. Rendering another bravura performance that nails the part in four scenes, Ryan again deserves serious consideration for the Supporting Actress Oscar.

Just in case you thought “The Changeling” is femme-driven saga, the accomplished ensemble includes half a dozen fully-developed males, such as Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the head of the LAPD Juvenile Investigation Unit assigned to find Walter, and Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), who plays the crucial role of the officer who’s the first to suggest a link between Walter’s disappearance and another series of crimes, committed by the serial killer Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) who may or may not have clues to Walter’s vanishing.

Cast

Christine Collins – Angelina Jolie Rev. Gustav Briegleb – John Malkovich Capt. J.J. Jones – Jeffrey Donovan Det. Lester Ybarra – Michael Kelly Chief James E. Davis – Colm Feore Gordon Northcott – Jason Butler Harner Carol Dexter – Amy Ryan S.S. Hahn – Geoff Pierson Dr. Jonathan Steele – Denis O’Hare Ben Harris – Frank Wood Dr. Earl W. Tarr – Peter Gerety Mayor Cryer – Reed Birney Walter Collins – Gattlin Griffith Arthur Hutchins – Devon Conti Sanford Clark – Eddie Alderson Credits

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Malpaso production. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Robert Lorenz. Executive producers: Tim Moore, Jim Whitaker. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: J. Michael Straczynski. Camera: Tom Stern. Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach. Music: Clint Eastwood. Production designer: James J. Murakami. Art director: Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. Set designers: Adrian Gorton, Dianne Wager. Set decorator: Gary Fettis. Costume designer: Deborah Hopper. Sound: Walt Martin. Supervising sound editor: Alan Robert Murray. Co-supervising sound editor: Bub Asman. Re-recording mixers: John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff. Visual effects supervisor: Michael Owens. Visual effects: CIS Vancouver, Pacific Title and Art Studio. Stunt coordinator: Buddy Van Horn.

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 142 Minutes