As an actor, Clint Eastwood specialized in the granite-faced cowboy, the clench-jawed cop. It comes as no surprise, then, to find his directorial career marked by a stoic sort of classicism (Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers). His latest, the period drama Changeling, continues the trend, offering an emotional tale of kidnapping, murder and rampant corruption as seen from a detached, exquisitely composed distance.
The story unearthed in Changeling is nothing short of astonishing. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (best known as the sci-fi-centric creator of “Babylon 5”) meticulously researches his way through the true-life tale of one Christine Collins, a single mother in late-’20s Los Angeles who came home from work one evening to find her 9-year-old son, Walter, missing. Collins is played here with Oscar-level sincerity by Angelina Jolie. When Collins learns of her son’s inexplicable disappearance, she calls the police, who promptly inform her she must wait 24 hours to file a missing person report.
She eventually does, and after months of frantic searching, little Walter is found. But when he’s returned home to California, the manic mother notices something’s amiss. She’s convinced this boy is not her son. The LAPD, in the midst of its own public relations nightmare thanks to a violent and corrupt administration, brands Ms. Collins a hysteric and convinces her to take the boy on a “trial basis.”
The film’s title and plot description would suggest something slightly more ethereal than what Eastwood and company deliver. That seems almost like a missed opportunity. A touch more abstraction would have made the film more, you know, filmic and less like a dutiful biopic. To the audience, Ms. Collins’ sanity is never in doubt. The “Walter” who comes home with her is three inches shorter than the one who vanished. And circumcised to boot. The LAPD is obviously trying to put one over on the mother just to score some good press. As far as they’re concerned, it’s case closed. But the stubborn Ms. Collins knows her real son is still out there somewhere and continues to pester the police department to do something about it.
She soon gains an ally in the form of Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a Presbyterian minister, early radio personality and political rabble-rouser intent on calling the LAPD to task for its crimes. Back in the ’20s, not even the cops played by the rules, however. Ms. Collins soon finds herself tossed into an insane asylum for her troubles.
Changeling is an interesting mixture of genres. It’s an impeccable historical drama, showcasing early Los Angeles in the gorgeously burnished light of director of photography Tom Stern (a longtime Eastwood collaborator) and production designer James J. Murakami (“Deadwood,” The Game, True Romance). It’s a detailed, point-by-point mystery following a similar path as films like L.A. Confidential and Eastwood’s own Mystic River. Finally, with its unwavering heroine front and center trying to reform the corrupt LAPD, the film becomes another crusading woman drama along the lines of Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich.
No doubt about it: Ms. Collins’ journey is a heartbreaking one, filled with shocking twists and turns. Jolie does fine, unfussy work here, crying on cue and looking gorgeously frail in her flapperish outfits. The film’s official-looking villains are rotten enough to illicit auditory audience booing. The children-in-peril leitmotif is serious enough to tickle the fear triggers of nonbreeders. And yet, the film remains almost clinical in its distance. Blame Straczynski’s fact-heavy script and Eastwood’s too-formal style. Changeling is a class act through and through. There are probably a couple of Oscar nods in it, certainly for Jolie. But the cumulative effect of the film’s lengthy 140 minutes is one of stolid admiration and not impassioned engrossment. It’s the difference between a painting of something beautiful and a beautiful painting.