March 31, 2009
In 1926, James E. Davis became Chief of Police of the City of Los Angeles, California; where he formed his infamous "gun squad": a 50-man team destined to blast crime without mercy. Unfortunately, the form of extra-judicial punishment delivered by the gun squad only brought even more violence to the streets, which along with the corruption inside the department and the incompetence of the police to solve crimes resulted in a huge amount of bad reputation for the LAPD. It was under this circumstances that the strange case of Christine and Walter Collins took place, the case of a missing child that the LAPD wanted to use to boost its reputation but that ended up uncovering the terrible and corrupt methods used by the department to silence its enemies. More than 70 years later, scriptwriter and journalist J. Michael Straczynski learned about the case and, fascinated by it, decided to take it to the big screen, writing a screenplay and sent it to his agent. Interested in the case and the period setting, director Clint Eastwood decided to take the project.
Titled "Changeling", the film tells the story of single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), whom one day in 1928, returns home to discover that her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), is missing. The LAPD opens an investigation about it, and several months later, the department informs Christine that her son Walter has been found alive in another state. Incredibly happy about the news, Christine awaits eagerly for her son, whose return is announced by the LAPD as a great triumph. However, when Christine meets the boy the police claims is Walter (Devon Conti), she claims the boy is not her son. Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), head of the department's Juvenile Division, insists the boy is Walter and pressures Christine into taking him home to avoid a media scandal. Despite this, Christine begins a crusade to find her real son and gathers consistent proof that the boy is not her son. Knowing that Christine's actions may become dangerous to the police, Captain Jones decides to send her to an psychiatric hospital. But Christine won't let them to silence her.
Completed after a lengthy work of research, J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay for "Changeling" is a heavily detailed account of the Collins case, including its connection to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. But even when Straczynski offers a complete overview of the case (straight from historical records), "Changeling"'s focus is entirely on Christine Collins and her crusade to prove that the boy the LAPD claimed to be her son was an impostor, and that her real son was still missing. On this aspect, "Changeling" is more a drama about the disempowerment of women than about the mystery itself, as it follows the attempts done by the LAPD to silence her, reflecting the ways women were treated in the past when they became trouble for the male-dominated police department. Under this focus, Straczynski also makes the point that the brutal methods employed by the corrupt police department to cover its mistakes and protect itself were as terrible as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, as they were done by those supposed to protect and serve the society.
With themes such as rampant police corruption, authority abuse, and the loss of innocence of a rising city; director Clint Eastwood evokes in "Changeling" the tone and mood of film noir to tell the story of Christine Collins' fight against the system. To achieve this atmosphere, Eastwood puts to great use the remarkable job done by cinematographer Tom Stern, who gives the film an antique visual look that suits nicely the period setting. Taking a subtle, restrained approach to the film's subject, Eastwood avoids to fall in overemotional melodrama or in the cheap sensationalism, and remains as objective as possible, keeping true to Straczynski's compromise with the historical account of the case. While it's one of the biggest productions in his career, Eastwood's film flows in a very intimate way, focusing on the characters' humanity and their interactions. Also, it's worth to point out the great work done by the visual effects team, who manage to recreate Los Angeles' old landscape and prove that digital effects are not an exclusivity of the more fantastic genres.
Leading the cast is Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, the single mother who must face not only the tragedy of losing a child, but also the oppression of having the police working against her. In what's probably an atypical role for her, Angelina Jolie brings back that talent that seemed to be hidden behind the whole celebrity image of her recent years. As Collins, Jolie is subtle, restrained, and surpassing all the expectations, manages to portray Collins' mix of fragility and strength with a very natural and believable charm. As Captain J. J. Jones, Jeffrey Donovan is excellent, representing remarkably not only the historical Captain Jones, but also the whole image of 1920's corrupt LAPD. Playing Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb, the man who helps Collins to keep fighting, is John Malkovich, who once again delivers a great performance, even if he's role is toned down in favor of Jolie's. Finally, two actors make excellent jobs even if their roles are also considerably smaller: Michael Kelly as Det. Lester Ybarra, and Jason Butler Harner, who plays Gordon Stewart Northcott.
Impeccably crafted and filled with a powerful message, in "Changeling" director Clint Eastwood delivers again an excellent movie that manages to deal with one of Lost Angeles' most lurid events with taste, class, and surprisingly, objectivity. Granted, it could be said that the movie does have a strong dose of social message about police corruption and women's rights; but the whole thing is executed with such a restrained pace and is so faithful to the historical facts, that it never feels tiresome or boring in the way it handles its message. If anything, the film may feel a tad typical in its presentation, although certainly the scope it has goes beyond the constrains of any genre. While not exactly a film noir, it's easy to make a connection, and not only because of the setting, as "Changleing" does offer the whole oppressive atmosphere and mystery that filled those classic films. The key difference being that, due to the focus on Christine Collins and her crusade, "Changeling" deals a bit more with emotions, as it's through her that we experience the cold fist of the 1920's LAPD.
A visual joy that brings back memories from the classic era, "Changeling" may not rank amongst Clint Eastwood's best films as a director, but in the end, given the talent the legendary actor has developed in his years as a director, it's still far superior than most filmmaker's work. While a bit slow at times, "Changeling" is quite a mesmerizing experience thanks to its recreation of the period and wonderful visual look. It's good to see that Angelina Jolie has more in her than the celebrity image the media has built around her, and thanks to Clint Eastwood, "Changeling" is a great reminder of her talent. Personally, I find in "Changeling" yet another proof that if there's a true heir of Hollywod's style for making classic, that's Clint Eastwood.