Changeling, the new film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie, begins and ends in much the same way. The perspective is high above a colorless Los Angeles street in the late 1920s, Model A Fords trundling along it. The music behind is a muted trumpet, playing a sparse and tentative line. In between those bookends are nearly two-and-a-half hours of story, with only a slight improvement in hue.
Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother who works by day as a telephone switchboard supervisor. By night she lives with her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), in a tidy bungalow in an outlying neighborhood. Collins has raised Walter to be courageous and independent, a fact that is highlighted in the dialogue of an early scene, where Christine tells Walter that he should “never start a fight, but always finish it.” They are prophetic words from a woman who will soon find herself embroiled in the biggest fight of her life when Walter goes missing, and the whole world, it seems, is bent on keeping him away from her.
Put in charge of finding Walter is the Los Angeles Police Department, a powerfully corrupt bunch, from their hatchet-faced chief (Colm Feore) on down to J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the black-hearted detective assigned to Walter’s case. In time they find a boy and present him to Collins, but she knows right away that he’s not Walter. She agrees to take him home on a trial basis, but once she gets him there her gut feelings are confirmed. For one, he’s three inches shorter than her real son. For another, he’s ill-mannered. What’s more, the specifics of his penis are all wrong.
When she brings all of this to the police’s attention, they reward her by committing her to a mental ward, which, it must be said, is a relatively benign measure for an organization that tends to deal with critics by gunning them down and stacking them like cordwood.
Without question, Changeling is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. Eastwood’s reconstruction of Depression-era Los Angeles is total, and he gives the movie a deliberate pace and moody look that honor the story. There are those washed-out colors, of course, but Eastwood also never misses a chance to side-light a face so that one half of it is bathed in shadow or hatched by the slats of a window blind.
Jolie’s performance is disciplined and moving throughout. With all of maledom arrayed against her—determined to label her as hysterical and diminish her protests—she sets her jaw and carries on. Still, she can’t conceal her distress. When her eyes aren’t hidden by the brim of her cloche hat, they’re glazed with tears. Jolie is both tender and tough, but as the film progresses from darkness into darkness, her face carries more and more grief, until the slash of red lipstick on her lips is the only color left.
It’s hardly her fault, but Jolie’s performance is so strong that it overpowers her peers. John Malkovich’s role as the socially conscious minister, Gustav Briegleb, might be worthy, but we’re given precious little information about Briegleb’s motives or personal history. The same goes for others in the film, notably Amy Ryan as Carol Dexter, whose pivotal, well-played character appears and then—poof—is gone.
And then there is the question of Changeling’s length. By the time we learn that an ax-wielding psychopath (Jason Butler Harner) may be responsible for the death not only of Walter but a score of other young boys, the story is already begging to be resolved. Not so fast, buster: Citizen protests, a pair of trials, a public hanging, and a well-deserved vindication all need to be gotten through.
An unscientific way to judge the reception of a movie is to watch how long an audience lingers after it ends, and on this count, Changeling earns poor marks. The film is stately and well-acted, but it’s tempting to wonder if Eastwood cares more about the mood of his movie than its content. It may be history, all right, but not exactly living history.
In the end it takes a surprisingly long time for Changeling’s armies of villains to learn something the rest of us probably knew from the outset: It’s a bad idea to try to take a kid—any kid—away from Angelina Jolie.