#3 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
A period piece about a single mother looking for her lost son? This couldn’t possibly be a Clint Eastwood film, could it? Well, if you’ve been paying close attention to what Eastwood’s been trying to say over the previous several decades, it’d be easy to see that Changeling actually fits really well into his body of work. He is essentially a studio director in the modern era, after the fall of the studio system, so, similar to a filmmaker like Fritz Lang, you can’t pinpoint the same kind of thematic obsessions at the same ubiquity as someone like Martin Scorsese. However, the tales of individuals being left behind or actively destroyed by corrupt systems simply keeps resurfacing again and again, and this tale falls right into place.
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother in late 1920s Los Angeles with a son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith). One Saturday, she’s called into her place of work, the Los Angeles telephone switchboard where she was a manager, and has to leave Walter alone at home for the day, returning late to find Walter gone. She reports Walter’s disappearance to the corrupt LA police, but months go by without any word. Desperate for any kind of positive press, the police led by Chief Davis (Colm Feore) arrange for a boy found in Iowa (Devon Conti) to take the place of Christine’s son. It’s obvious that this is not Walter, but the police keep insisting that the awful events of the previous few months were enough to shrink him by four inches. Her plight hits the radio waves in particular because of the Revered Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) who is on a mission to expose the corruption of the police force, and the police captain in charge of the case, J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) decides to forcibly put Christine in a mental institution where the head doctor, Jonathan Steele (Denis O’Hare) puts Christine through the wringer, trying to force her to sign a confession that the boy is hers.
Based very closely on a host of primary documents from the era, the script by J. Michael Straczynski takes its first half to really establish character and the overall sense of corruption as told through this limited tale. There is some talk of the gun squads of the era run by the police department, but ultimately its about how they treat Christine, and they treat Christine with disdain, condescension, and dismissiveness, peaking with violence to keep her quiet. It’s all well-handled, anchored by a very strong performance from Jolie who is at the center of most of the film, but it’s when the secondary investigation begins that the film really gains the kind of character that elevates it.
Detective Ybarra (Michael Kelly) takes a random immigration assignment to head out to a ranch in Wineville, California to find and help deport 15-year-old Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson) back to Canada. Clark’s uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott (James Butler Harner), runs at the sight of the police, and a basic interview with Clark begins to uncover the terrible truth that Northcott had been bringing boys around Walter Collins’ age to the range and murdering them. Clark even positively identifies Walter as one of the boys. This sets up an interesting contrast of the evil corruption of the LA police with the good, solid work that they tended to do under the radar. Ybarra is a good guy in this whole thing, and the press doesn’t care because he’s a low-level cog in a deeply corrupt machine that’s willing and able to throw a woman into a mental institution because she’s become a headache.
It’s Christine’s release where the film becomes more than just a tale of a woman who lost her son and went up against City Hall. It reaches the heights of a complex tragedy as Northcutt gets captured and tried. The contrast becomes almost explicit as Eastwood cuts between the trial of Northcutt and the public depositions of police officials led by the big-time attorney Sammy Hahn (Geoff Pierson) hired pro-bono by Briegleb. It’s a strong sequence with some very wonderful and small moments from Jolie that feels like the ending to a lesser film, but it keeps going so we can watch Northcutt’s execution and the further slivers of hope Christine receives in the ensuing years.
This is one of those scripts that perfectly matches Eastwood’s thematic concerns as well as his directing style. It’s a film that, if you were to bring it back into Academy ratio and use black and white film stock, you wouldn’t have to change much else to make it look and feel like it belonged in the 30s or 40s, something that Otto Preminger or Fritz Lang might have made. It takes its time with a very strong focus on character to help create the emotional reality of the piece, the strong first half that spends so much time on Christine and her plight building up to the second half that has a more subtle emotional appeal as Jolie very rarely loses her composure, sometimes no more than a quiver of a lip. It’s not the kind of acting showcase that gains lots of attention, but it’s the kind of acting that I find to be some of the most affecting. The script is a great foundation. Eastwood handles the production with extraordinary skill. However, it’s Jolie who really give the film its final push, making Changeling one of my favorite Eastwood films. Amidst the very capable and professional cast, I want to point out Herner as Northcott who plays the part like Peter Lorre might have, creating a creepy, deranged, and almost sympathetic character.
This period of Eastwood’s career feels very similar to Scorsese’s later period with movies like Shutter Island and The Aviator, period pieces with a lot of money behind them and an obvious effort by studios to marry the more traditional elements of the studio system with auteur directors they could trust to not explode budgets or make complete messes. And, much like Scorsese, this kind of money was where Eastwood ended up making some of his best work.
10 thoughts on “Changeling”
Good period piece, and well supported by true tales from that period.
It’s a good reminder that political corruption isn’t a recent phenomena and that it is always, always worth fighting against.
I like George C. Scott’s Changeling a bit more, though it’s a very different movie. This is also sort of a funhouse mirror version of the movie ‘Imposter. That is also based on a true story from the 90’s, but it was about a French con artist who was pretending to be a missing boy from Texas.
I’ve come to dislike Angelina Jolie, though it’s been a long road as she was once very hot and sexy, but she’s ok here. I won’t over-praise her but she’s ok. Clint directed her in a very restrained way that suits her.
Good period piece overall.
It’s interesting to watch Eastwood’s view of official power, which was never that positive to begin with, just steadily decline over the decades. Captain J.J. Jones is as malicious an actor as FBI Agent Shaw in Richard Jewell. At least Harry Callahan was trying to do right in a system that was just ineptly corrupt rather than openly antagonistic to the people. Here, J.J. Jones simply doesn’t care if he does right or not.
I’ve never seen Scott’s Changeling. I shall add it to the queue.
Peter Medak’s Changeling is very good indeed.
I’ve never seen this film, even though I’m a pretty big Straczynski fan.
How can you not love the guy who co-wrote Underworld Awakening?
I remember watching “World War Z” and seeing Straczynski’s name among the “Story by” credits and I went “Yay!” Then came the name Damon Lindelöf under “Screenplay by” and my face fell. The movie never recovered.
Peering through his comic work, I don’t think I’d read any of it. I was a Batman kid in the mid-90s, but I haven’t picked up a comic book in years.
I mainly know him from Babylon 5.
Ah, yes, of course. I watched about the first half of the first season.