The temptation is maybe to stifle a giggle when the “A True Story” title card, white on black, introduces Clint Eastwood’s Changeling with a heavy dose of portentousness. But it’s kind of necessary — if you didn’t know it was historically accurate, the whole thing would come off as an impossibly stacked-deck untrue Hollywood story. But as much as Changeling inspires impatience, with its thematic dots connected and emotions wrung out, its very conventionality is an attribute, framing a socially critical (even feminist) story in approachable star-vehicle period-melodrama garb.
Here, Los Angeles plays itself, circa 1928, and escapist heroes like Chaplin and Tom Mix and, later, It Happened One Night are invoked by the characters, as if Eastwood and journalist-turned-screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski are conscious of their underdog story arc and mother-and-child pathos.
So, basically, single mother Christine Collins, played by Angelina Jolie, has a lovable nine-year-old son, or had one, until he disappeared, and the corrupt L.A.P.D., after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, brings back a boy claiming to be her son. He is not. She says this, to them. Eager to avoid a p.r. mess, the embattled police department insists that the boy is her son. In a Kafkan series of scenes, (male) authority figures tell a solitary (female) citizen that up is down and black is white — it’s horrorshow vision of both authoritarian government and female subjugation. Eventually, she’s locked up in an institution, along with other “troublesome” women. Changeling makes a fascinating contrast with another NYFF selection, the much more oblique The Headless Woman (a fascinating movie which you should see): both deal with the idea of “hysteria”, that is, the diagnosis of psychological abnormality with which disruptive women are denied agency.
But there are, naturally, problems with this: there is, first of all, the problem of actually dramatizing a banging-head-against-the-wall scenario like this — it leads to several consecutive scenes of Angelina Jolie saying, “he’s not my son,” and some character actor in a suit saying, “yes he is be quiet.” There is also this issue of Angelina Jolie. It’s possible that every word she says, and every close-up Eastwood gives her, was in there before Jolie came on. But it’s hard not to think that the role of Christine Collins is tailored to her (very) public image as the world’s Supermom — the tracks of her tears are immaculate; she’s fierce or martyred as your heartstrings require.
But then again, her close-ups are beautifully lit, her eyes gleaming like moons out out a shadowy face — this is a movie that hits its beats, but at least hits them squarely. I would have liked more on the strange runaway boy who claims to be Jolie’s son — I think it would have opened up fascinating avenue of inquiry, though in a more ambiguous register than the movie is working in — but her scenes with him are shaded well, suggesting a vaguely devil-child interloper. For that matter, Changeling is sort of a horror movie — after Jolie is institutionalized, we’re taken out of the scene with a mental patient’s repeated declaration “my room, my room, my room,” a gothic touch setting up a section of the movie that deals with the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, a killing spree adjacent to the Collins case. (Without getting too spoiler-y, there’s an interesting omission from the movie’s treatment of the case; it would have made a messier parallel than the movie is perhaps interested in.)
There’s nice business like that throughout — the way police interrogators are trained to push and interrupt their way towards the answer they want and expect comes through, and the supporting case is very colorful while being muted. (John Malkovich plays a celebrity minister activist named Gustav Briegleb, which sounds like a Coen Brothers set-up but, astonishingly works with a straight face. The TV actor Jason Butler Harner is hammier, but effectively — he’s playing a serial child murderer, after all.)
But, to keep switching off to the other hand, this is a fundamentally broad movie, with the main antagonist a smarmy Irish-accented cop (you keep waiting for him to morph into James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential) and Amy Ryan as a tough-broad hooker-with-a-heart teaching Jolie to stand up for herself. There’s a hair’s-breath escape and courtroom catharsis. This is, after all, a Clint Eastwood movie — it’s going to uphold traditional storytelling values in a way that reminds us what’s important (accessibility, mostly) about understated, stylistically conservative mainstream cinema.
Changeling is the centerpiece selection of the New York Film Festival, playing tomorrow night and Sunday. It is, obvs, sold out. Universal will release the film here October 24.