15 May 2009

Movie review: Changeling

Changeling (2008)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Jason Butler Harner, Michael Kelly, Amy Ryan.

In the middle of of 2008, movie critics and film-goers would have viewed the upcoming Gran Torino as the other Clint Eastwood film. The media and potential audiences attached prime importance to The Changeling as Clint’s big movie for the year. Now everything has flipped around. Gran Torino turned into a huge hit, a key “Eastwoodian” moment, and Changeling is the other film. Not that this stopped Angelina Jolie from getting a Best Actress nomination.

Changeling tackles three different stories combined into one canvas and stretches it over the tent poles of a social-commentary. First, a mother searches for her vanished son. Second, the city of Los Angeles in the late 1920s deals with the immense corruption within its police force. Third, detectives hunt for a serial killer. The mixture of these three isn’t always a harmonious one, and Eastwood works better as a director when he works with social commentary on a smaller, more individual scale… like Gran Torino.

However, Changeling is an almost-great film. For the first hour and twenty minutes I think it’s a phenomenal, a gripping message film noir showing a life spiraling out of control in the hands of a heartless police force, decorated with the beauties of the 1920s Los Angeles (the city never looked better in its history than during this decade). I think one of the reasons that Eastwood chose to direct the movie was the chance to plunge into the period setting—which he does with his usual sober enthusiasm.

Let me set the stage of the L.A. of the period for you, something I’m more than happy to do because I love the history of my city. During the ‘20s, the police department in L.A. swung violently between two extremes. Police chiefs were either reformers or undisguised gangsters, and usually alternated from one chief to another. A reformer would never last long because he would step on too many toes, and the corrupt crook would eventually ignite public outcry. Police Chief August Vollmer (1923–24) tried to scrub-up the department’s nasty reputation by introducing a level of professionalism to the force. But James Edgar “Two Gun” Davis (1926–29, played in the movie by Colm Feore) left his mark on L.A. history as one of the most corrupt chiefs ever. Under his control, the LAPD essentially made itself the toughest gang in the city, wiping out the actual criminal competition so it could run the graft show. (Depressingly, his successor, “Strongarm Dick” Roy E. Steckel, arguably exceeded him in corruption). Changeling is the story of Davis’s fall.

Well, only in the macro-view of the story. But it’s Davis’s tainted force—a pack of bullies only tangentially interested in law-enforcement—that places in motion all the pain of the tale. Police Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) is Davis’s tool in the LAPD’s war against Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a woman whose son has disappeared; a war that the department hopes will boost its collapsing reputation in the press.

Collins is a strong, single mother, and Jolie plays the part perfectly. When her son Walter vanishes, she seeks help from the police but gets little aid. Suddenly, the police locate her son and return him to her in the middle of a media circus. Except… the boy isn’t her son. Clearly not. But the police and their paid specialists have a simple message for Christine: he is your son, so shut the hell up if you know what’s good for you. When Christine fights, the LAPD pulls out their secret weapon. They have Christine abruptly declared insane and tossed into a psychopathic ward. Due process? Never heard of it.

All of this the movie handles expertly. The sense of frustration, alienation, and helplessness that make the best films noir. Even the social protest angle, embodied in John Malkovich’s crusading pastor, has a connection with the “Ripped from the Headlines” noirs that Warner Bros. made in the 1940s. Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) push the viewer deeper and deeper into a nightmare that culminates in two amazing sequences. First, Christine’s torment in the asylum, where anything she does the keepers use against as evidence that she’s insane. Second, a shivery flashback a boy narrates about how a madman (Jason Butler Harner) in rural Riverside forced him to help him kidnap and gruesomely murder more than twenty young boys. (For people who have difficulty handling movies that deal with cruelty toward children, you might want to skip this.)

But once the movie gets past the mid-point, it starts to deflate into a routine courtroom drama. Actually, two courtroom dramas. The police stand trial in one, and multiple-murderer Gordon Stewart Northcott in the other. The social message part of the film now struggles to the foreground, and once again I see why adhering to the “True Story” parts of a true story can get in the way of telling the most compelling story.

A few scenes in the latter half still manage to work, but they’re the exception, not the rule. There’s too much heroic grandstanding and melodramatic arm flailing, and the wrap-up feels maudlin and trite; it’s the only place where I didn’t believe Jolie’s performance as Collins.

Eastwood’s direction stays with the somber and restrained style that has dominated most of his work since Unforgiven put his career back on track. Even when he directs a problematic movie like this, I still love how he directs it. “Dignity.” That’s the word for Eastwood’s directorial style. If Ron Howard had directed the movie, as originally intended, it would have worked far less effectively. The arm-flailing would have dominated the whole movie.

Under the camera of Tom Stern and the production design of James J. Murakami, Changeling is undoubtedly one of the best looking films of 2008. I love seeing old Los Angeles come to life, and Eastwood does it in a glowing but realistic style. Even when I felt my interest slide in the second half, and I could always absorb the wonderful art deco buildings and the beauty of the costumes. Jolie has never look better than under the shadow of a cloque hat. Eastwood thought the actress’ face fit the time period, and he was right.

Gran Torino ran Changeling over, so Eastwood stands guilty of sabotaging himself with his own talent, but I think I might find a place on my list of favorite films of 2008 for Changeling.