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CHANGELING (director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriter: J. Michael Straczynski; cinematographer: Tom Stern; editors: Joel Cox/Gary D. Roach; music: Clint Eastwood; cast: Angelina Jolie (Christine Collins), John Malkovich (the Rev. Gustav Briegleb), Jeffrey Donovan (Capt. J. J. Jones), Michael Kelly (Detective Lester Ybarra), Colm Feore (Chief James E. Davis), Jason Butler Harner (Gordon Northcott), Amy Ryan (Carol Dexter), Geoff Pierson (S. S. Hahn, Lawyer), Denis O’Hare (Dr. Jonathan Steele), Frank Wood (Ben Harris), Peter Gerety (Dr. Earl W. Tarr), Gattlin Griffith (Walter Collins, the real Walter), Devon Conti (Arthur Hutchins, the false Walter), Eddie Alderson (Sanford Clark); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Clint Eastwood/Brian Grazer/Ron Howard/Robert Lorenz; Universal; 2008)
“Its story is not easily forgotten.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Clint Eastwood (“Mystic River”/”Million Dollar Baby”/”Letters from Iwo Jima”) directed true story drama (a case known as “The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders,” set in Riverside County, Calif.) is a somber tale that tells of Christine Collins’ ordeal over her missing nine-year-old son that precipitated a media frenzy in late-1920s Los Angeles and much hardship for her and her community. Its title refers to folklore tales of infants secretly swapped by mischievous fairies, which aptly fits a film that Eastwood has said is “a horror story for adults, not for thrill-seeking kids.” The well-acted, well-directed, well-costumed and well-photographed period drama is a gripping work told in a restrained way that overcomes an overly ambitious complex screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski (creator of TV’s “Babylon 5”), whose most serious flaw is that it misses out in capturing emotionally the full impact of the enticing story by a climax that somewhat drains the film of its built-up suspense.

Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a divorced LA supervisor of telephone operators, using roller-skates on the job, who is raising her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) alone in her modest bungalow home in a quiet residential neighborhood. When asked to work overtime on a Saturday, she leaves Walter at home alone only to find on her return from work that he has vanished. The lackadaisical police refuse to respond until after a missing person report is filed for 24 hours. Five months later, in 1928, Walter is located in DeKalb, Illinois, left in a diner by a drifter. The LAPD, that has been smeared in the papers as being incompetent, brutal and corrupt, sees this as a success story to give its department a welcomed shot in the arm with good publicity and arrange for a photo op at the Union Station for the happy reunion of mother and son. The only problem is that Christine is sure that’s not her son, even though the kid claims he is. Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the head of the Juvenile Investigation Unit, insists she take the child with her (why spoil a police success over a little problem like the kid returned doesn’t belong to the mom!). With that the miffed Christine gathers ample proof that the child is not hers, such as he’s much shorter than her son, is circumcised, and that his classroom teacher and dentist don’t recognize him.

To Christine’s support comes the fiery crusading Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a Presbyterian minister with a popular weekly radio program, pointing out the widespread police misconduct and political corruption in the city (one of the few times an evangelical firebrand is depicted as a good guy in a movie). His main target is the evil LAPD Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore). To silence Christine, the police brass label her an unfit mother who no longer wants to care for her child and illegally commit her to a mental institution, where there are other women who have been placed there by the corrupt police to be silenced. Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan) is a whore in the mental asylum who reveals to Christine that the inmates are being subjected to drugs and electroshock with no chance of escape.

How the wheels of justice get turned around to straighten out the evil police department, that is willing to go to extreme lengths to coverup its misdeeds and not fess up to its errors, is a fascinating story with many intriguing nuances.

Though it all goes well for the first two hours as we feel the mother’s anguish and impotence and maternal yearnings, the film nevertheless breaks down in its last forty minutes as it switches gears as a new twist to the case involves a shocking investigation into a smirking wimpy chicken ranch owner serial killer pederast named Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) by the seemingly one decent cop on the LAPD force Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly). This takes place after a 15-year-old boy (Eddie Alderson) to be deported back to Canada starts blabbing to interrogators about the killing spree the sociopath Northcott took him on.

The uncompromising film’s indictment of the corrupt power structure and the chauvinist attitude rendered to women by the male authority figures is justified, but it lost a great opportunity to do more with such a populist appealing tale by losing its focus in the end. Though if you can sit through such an old-fashioned muckraking lengthy depressing film, it does work and its story is not easily forgotten. What it gets absolutely right, is eliciting great performances from its ensemble cast–especially Jolie’s finest performance to date, where in a moving natural way the tormented woman goes from being stoic to letting go of the pent-up rage building up inside her.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”