Friday, October 31, 2008

Changeling (***)

Directed by Clint Eastwood


The story of Christine Collins is the kind that is tailor-made for a filmmaker for Clint Eastwood. Powerful, long-winded, and profound, Changeling is not a huge stretch, thematically or stylistically, from the last couple of films Eastwood has made during his glorious emeritus years. His late-life boost as a director has produced Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, and several Oscars. Both of those films were grand in the size of their drama, and Changeling is much of the same model. It may not be as memorable as those other two films, but with a wonderful lead performance, Eastwood is able to create another masterful motion picture that punctures bare human emotion.

Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a skilled worker at the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Comp., working as supervisor of the telephone operators during the late 1920s. Her work ethic and dedication gets her many a compliment within her workspace. She is also a responsible single mother. Her son Walter is her main source of happiness, and other than work, her life is focused solely on his well-being. When she is unexpectedly called into work on the weekend, she is forced to leave him at home until she gets back, but when she finally returns that afternoon, Walter has disappeared.

Christine calls the police, but they refuse to handle any missing children cases unless they are missing for more than twenty-four hours, so she scours the town, finding nothing. When the police finally do contact her, they tell her that her son has been found after five months of investigation. Police Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) takes her to the train station to see her son, but who Christine meets is not her son. In fact, this boy is three inches shorter. Upset, Christine pleads with Capt. Jones to keep looking for her son, but he refuses, stating that a traumatic experience has probably effected the boy's physical features.

Christine is approached by an Episcopalian preacher named Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who is a progressive reformer, who feels it is his mission to bring out the corruption and ineptitude of the Los Angeles Police Department. He advises Christine to fight the police, and fight for her son, but his advice leads Christine straight into the claws of the police. She is lead under false pretenses into the police station, and commited to a psychopathic hospital, where she meets many other women who weren't in fact crazy, but just a pest to the police. After suffering the greatest injustice, Christine continues on, striving to find justice and hoping to find Walter through all of the corruption in the L.A.P.D.

Sure, this film outstays its welcome, and is perhaps thirty minutes too long. Sure, it is pretensiously aware of its own pretigious pedigree (a sequence which actually showcases an Academy Awards ceremony seems steemingly baity). All of that would probably be crippling to a film, if it wasn't be handled by the delicate hands of Clint Eastwood. Its hard to use Clint and the word "delicate" in the same sentence, but its that delicacy that is the reason he has succeeded so recently behind the camera. He has an eye for human emotion, and knows how to push his actors without allowing them to become preachy or melodramatic.

The L.A.P.D. has probably been the most skewered and criticized organization in film history, particularly in films from the 1990's on. The Christine Collins story is supposed to be based on a true story, but the actual famous event that the film is based upon cannot be concealed here, for fear of a spoiler. The reason I bring it up, is because I can't help but wonder how much more interesting the film could have been if the story was singularly focused on Christine Collins, and didn't take long meanderings focused on characters that are important, but not particularly gravitating.

The power of this movie does come solely from the performance of Angelina Jolie. Her performance in Hollywood commercial films has caused her to be somewhat underestimated. She is known for gaudy action films, where subtlety is left in the wind. Even her Oscar-winning performance for Girl, Interrupted was one of a large dramatic scope, where she is scene-stealing simply because she is the loudest force on the screen. In Changeling--much like her performance within last year's A Mighty Heart--she shows her talent for nuance and understatedness. Because it comes so unbelievably natural to her, it some times seems absent, but this film is certainly a soft performance of notice.

This film has nearly the same amount of endings as the final Lord of the Rings film, and that is the sole source of frustration when you watch this movie, but it is certainly crowd-pleasing. The twists do not unfold as smoothly to make them as shocking or surprising as they need to be, but Eastwood still allows them to feel profound. Much like his other films, Eastwood directed, produced, and wrote the musical score. He's a renaissance man of cinema, and with December's Gran Torino, he is becoming as prolific as Woody Allen. Changeling is certainly not the best of Eastwood's recent films, but it is satisfying either way.

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