In 1928, Pacific Telephone and Telegraph operator and scandalously single Christine Collins reported her eight-year-old son missing. Several months later the Los Angeles Police Department delivered her a missing boy that they assured her was her son. It wasn’t.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski (best known for creating the sci-fi show Babylon 5) spent a year researching this real life case and turning it into a screenplay that would become the film Changeling. The script captured the attention of renowned producing duo Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, who then tapped Clint Eastwood to direct and Angelina Jolie to star as Christine. The film spends very little time getting to the child’s disappearance and is structured to be less about the disappearance as it is about critiquing bureaucracy.
Determined to prove that the boy the police brought to her isn’t hers and that her real son is still missing, Christine rallies against a wall of apathy. She’s either dealing with low-level employees just doing their job or self-obsessed officials who can’t stand the thought of veering out of routine. Police Captain J. J. Jones (played by Jeffrey Donovan) and the rest of the force refuse to entertain the possibility of their having made an error and receive Christine’s pleas with a deaf ear.
Eventually Captain Jones gets so fed up with her he has her thrown in a female psychiatric ward. The only support she can find is in the form of Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a local pastor with a nightly radio program, a band of devoted churchgoers and a vested interest in exposing the inadequacies and corruption of the LAPD.
The film depicts these characters in strict binaries of good and evil. While characters like Captain Jones and the psychiatric warden Dr. Steele (Dennis O’Hare) are one-dimensional monsters, Reverend Gustav is seen as a saintly crusader, even though there would be plenty of room to explore the propagandistic nature of his program. This dichotomy becomes difficult to swallow when Gustav’s campaign leads to the release of all the patients in Steele’s ward – women who were instituted for the ‘crime’ of challenging police authority. During this moment I couldn’t help but wonder if this was really a wise idea, even if it did mean the end of Steele’s tyrannical reign.
But the movie doesn’t give us time to explore the repercussions of the action, instead concluding the matter with a shot of Christine smirking – one of only two moments in which Jolie’s public persona overshadows her otherwise very strong performance as it calls to mind her highly publicized real life goodwill endeavors.
The most captivating character in the film appears in a parallel plot line about child murderer Gordon Northcott. In the role, Jason Butler Harner gives an electric performance just one step below caricature. He’s seen as resolutely evil but the depiction of his mental unbalance is daring and unexpected. Due to Eastwood’s preference for doing as few takes as possible, many of the performances in his films feel overly composed but Harner conveys the spontaneity of an improv artist. For the downside of Eastwood’s expediency, consider Donavan’s fluctuating accent.
Wading through the plethora of characters in the film’s many subplots gets to be pretty tiring, especially when the film is so clear about how it wants you to feel about each character. Amidst all these plot strands, the film chooses to ignore one of the most intriguing situations, the boy incorrectly returned to Christine. Why this boy would unflaggingly pretend to be her son and the unique relationship that would have transpired between him and Christine is only later revealed, his determination remains perplexing.
Changeling marks Eastwood’s third movie to directly deal with child abduction following 1993’s A Perfect World and 2003’s Mystic River. While A Perfect World presented a sugar coated depiction of the act, both Mystic River and Changeling confront the matter unblinkingly, exploring the grim and damaging effects of abduction in all their horrifying details. While Mystic River was concerned with the psychological consequences of trauma, Changeling is more concerned with the institutional process of child recovery. The script is structured so that the viewer’s feelings quickly shift from hoping for the boy’s return to hoping to see the police’s incompetency proven; there’s a touch of Arthur Miller in the way these emotions are achieved.
The challenge of authority is another popular theme in the Eastwood oeuvre. His performance in the Dirty Harry films provides the iconicity for this theme while much of his directorial work in the ‘90s (The Rookie, Absolute Power, True Crime) deal with the issue both obliquely and directly. Invoking those titles reminds one of how much difference a decade can make. Eastwood’s work following Unforgiven (1992) was largely received as middling diversions but everything since Mystic River (2003) has been instantly positioned as a work of great moment by a director whose entire career deserves reconsideration.
Given the Academy Awards’ recent love affair with all things Eastwood, it can’t help but seem like an act of hubris to stage a pivotal scene in Changeling around a character listening to a broadcast of the 1935 Oscar ceremony. Changeling did manage to snag three Oscar nominations (including Best Actress for Jolie) but on the whole was met with mixed reactions – and rightfully so.
While the film boasts an impressive set design and classy cinematography, it lacks an internal energy needed to propel it through its considerable running time. It’s also relentlessly depressing. The last line of dialogue in the film is the word “hope” and even though the character appears to say it with conviction, after viewing the preceding two hours and 18 minutes, it’s hard to receive the line as anything other than ironic.
The DVD’s special features are sparse and misleading. Given Eastwood and Jolie’s well-known political stances and their differing parties (he a staunch Republican, she a fierce Democrat) one might assume that a featurette entitled Partners in Crime: Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie would investigate their shared attraction to the material or at least shed some light on their collaborative process. Instead, it is a 13-minute behind-the-scenes look that focuses mainly on the challenges of making a period piece.
It also features a good amount of recollection on Eastwood’s directorial habits, with Donovan offering the clearest insight into working with Eastwood: “Not only do I want him to be my director, I want him to be my dad.” This line reveals the respect and reverence that has led to Eastwood’s continued success; it’s also illustrated by the grandpa-styled tucked in polo shirt and loose fitting khaki wardrobe Eastwood is seen wearing on set.
The other featurette is even shorter (four minutes) but has a stronger connection to its title. The Common Thread: Angelina Jolie Becomes Christine Collins features interviews with the film’s costume designer, who explains the challenges of creating dresses for women in the late 1920s. Sadly, nothing is said about the real-life Christine Collins or Jolie’s approach to inhabiting her character. This also would have been a good opportunity for the filmmakers to reflect on the film’s dramatic liberties and to discuss the real life events as both the Collins disappearance and the Northcott murders are true stories that have not been widely circulated in the history books.