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Changeling is a worthy drama on a touchy subject, as realistic movies about deadly jeopardy to children are understandably a difficult sell. J. Michael Straczynski's careful script hews closely to the facts of a complicated crime that doesn't easily lend itself to adaptation, making the film a bit like last year's Zodiac, a show that examines a mass murder case that limped along for decades. Changeling's mystery takes on several big issues but remains a "this is how it happened" docudrama. Despite the serious theme and period realism, the movie is ultimately a star vehicle for the beautiful Angelina Jolie.
Los Angeles, the late 1920s. Telephone exchange supervisor Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) begs for help when her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappears on his walk home from school. The L.A.P.D. treats Christine as if her plight were an inconvenience. Almost her only supporter is a Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malcovich), who uses the disappearance on his radio show as a way of attacking the corrupt police force. Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) locates Walter in the Midwest, and the department mounts a big public relations reunion to counter the negative press. When the boy arrives, Christine is horrified to discover that he is not her son. Stunned into silence, she allows the insistent Jones to intimidate her into taking the boy home.
Christine's attempts to return the boy and entreat the police to keep looking for Walter are met with more official hostility and suspicion. When she refuses to take no for an answer and takes her complaint public, Jones has Christine seized and escorted to a county psycho ward. Fellow "patient" Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan) tells her that the cops routinely commit women to the ward as a way of silencing them, for political reasons. Meanwhile, on a dilapidated ranch outside the city, a frightened kid tells Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) that a number of younger boys have been kidnapped and murdered by a man named Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner).
The movie that Changeling most resembles is Akira Kurosawa's superb High and Low, a kidnapping saga structured in two halves. For the first hour the police negotiate for the release of a young boy, and in the second they trace the deranged kidnapper into the "hell" of Tokyo's slums. To follow the contours of the true story, Changeling shifts gears several times. Just when the kidnapping story seems about to resolve, the show instead morphs into a phase dealing with Christine's persecution at the hands of the police. When we think we have a handle on that issue, the story hands us twin trials, one for the main suspect, and another against the L.A.P.D. itself.
Changeling exhibits Clint Eastwood's faults and graces as a director. Eastwood has a relaxed way with actors and a no-nonsense storytelling sense. When the film cuts away to various boys' memories of their horrible experience, the "shock" scenes are almost as matter-of-fact as the rest of the film. Eastwood's scenes enlarge the script only when his performances are good -- he's an efficient but not particularly expressive camera director. When he has a good story, his pictures play well. Eastwood came to Changeling as a director for hire; the film was clearly conceived and positioned to serve as Oscar bait for its leading lady.
Angelena Jolie gives a fine character performance but the passive nature of her character presents a problem. It makes perfect sense that the real Christine Collins could be so stunned and intimidated that she'd sheepishly do as the police ask her, even to the point of accepting a "fake" boy as her own. But when we can't see strong reasons why Christine doesn't fight back sooner and harder, our attachment to her weakens. Christine doesn't do things, things happen to her. Audiences lose patience with passive leading characters. Changeling tries but doesn't quite get above that block.
In the absence of a strong protagonist we eagerly root for the good detective Ybarra, the man who breaks the case. We also reach out to at least three of the boys in the film, little heroes that struggle through terrifying circumstances. Any of them might be little Clint Eastwood, who himself was a Depression-era California kid. But none of the characters, not even Christine Collins, holds us completely.
Many scenes in Changeling seem to replay old movie memories. Christine's harrowing asylum ordeal is straight out of The Snake Pit or Frances. A by-the-numbers execution scene is a carbon copy of one in Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood. In its effort to help Angelina Jolie deliver a socko final impression, the script gives her not one but two dramatic confrontations. The first is a "hard" scene where Christine gets to grit her teeth and scream at the man who may have killed her son. Not only does Christine's Dirty Harry- like backbone seem out of character, we have a hard time believing that the guards allow her to be alone in a room with the suspected maniac. The second emotional finale is a painful mother & child reunion.
John Malkovich is particularly convincing as the activist preacher who initially seems to be exploiting Christine. The bad cops are appropriately blind to their own villainy, while Eastwood wisely avoids idealizing the kids affected by the crimes. Jason Butler Harner is excellent as the quirky, impish killer Gordon Northcott. We never find out the full depth of his sick crimes. To its credit, the script goes against current trends and does not allow Gordon to be sympathetic or personable. He's no Peter Lorre from "M", begging for our understanding.
Finishing off the top performances is Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) as the prostitute punished with shock treatments in the asylum. Her part (and the sequence) could easily become silly, but Ryan keeps it grounded. There's a lot of good acting, and good Eastwood direction, in Changeling.
At this time, Changeling's art director James J.Murakami and set decorator Gary Fettis have been nominated for Oscars, as has cinematographer Tom Stern and leading actress Angelina Jolie.
Universal's Blu-ray of Changeling is an accurate encoding of this handsomely designed picture. The added resolution of HD draws our attention to fine details in clothing and sets. Some special effect views of the city are better than others, and a few scenes staged in downtown L.A. look like they were filmed on a studio back lot. The film's ordinary neighborhoods and the dusty ranch are more convincing.
Blu-ray's BD-Live functions dominate the extras. Changeling has no commentary but instead presents Picture-in-Picture features organized like a selective trivia track. A "then and now" location comparison pops up when the movie is played, as does an "Archives" section on the facts of the real crime dramatized in the movie.
The two "normal" extras are a pair of polished featurettes. Partners in Crime is a behind the scenes overview of the production, stressing every crewmember's vocal adoration of director Eastwood. A second piece focuses on Angelina Jolie's transformation into Christine Collins.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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