Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
There’s always a problem with movies that function as vehicles for someone to win the best actor/actress awards at the Oscars: they are long on monologues by the main actor and short on plot and substance. Thankfully for the sake of Changeling, Clint Eastwood is at the helm. Angelina Jolie’s performance combined with the strong story and exquisite cinematic flair makes this one of the best movies of 2008.
Taking place in the 1920s just before the Great Depression, Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single working mother. Her life is her son and her job. On a day she was supposed to spend time with son, she gets called into work. Upon returning, she finds that her son has disappeared. The disappearance has been made well known to the public by Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) and there is a massive search for her missing son. The reverend has been highly critical of the police’s tactics concerning corrupt practices. When the police claim they’ve located the missing boy, they organize a public reunion with him and his mother with the hope that it will make people see the police as not the ruthless thugs they are made out to be. The reunion takes a horrible turn when Collins immediately believes that this boy is not her son. The LAPD, determined not to take the fall for this screw-up, attempt to convince Collins that the boy the found is indeed her son. When Collins is undeterred in her belief that the boy they found is not her son, they make her out to be crazy and attempt to destroy her reputation.
Eastwood does a great job at creating the feel of the 1920s. As cliché as that sounds, the film is so engrossing that it is very easy to forget that it is a film made in the 21st century and not a window into the past. Another thing that this movie does well is that it takes a movie that nears 150 minutes and rarely makes it seem to have any slow parts. Very few scenes are longer than a few minutes and those that do go beyond a few moments create such an emotional impact that it is near impossible to not be captivated by this bizarre tale. It would probably have been a bit better if there was a little bit more backstory regarding the corruption issues within the LAPD at the time, but Eastwood does a great job at familiarizing the concerns many L.A. citizens had at the time. Some may take issue that Eastwood made the LAPD out to be just as evil as the culprit behind Collins’s son disappearance, but the director does a good job using subtlety at revealing why the LAPD are doing what they are doing. This is a movie in which you are not entirely sure about the motives of any of the characters (other than Collins) and keeps drawing you until the dust settles.
Jolie’s performance helps this film considerably by taking it from a good movie with a solid story to a heart wrenching tale making it one of the biggest emotional rollercoasters of 2008. Jolie plays each scene well. This film is written as if it is a showcase piece in an attempt whoever is playing the main character an Oscar, but Jolie does not make the movie about herself. Very rarely does she take her character over-the-top and even in scenes that highlight Christine Collins and dull out the other characters, she becomes low-key and lets the mood and setting tell Collins’s story. Unlike most character roles where the actor tries to define the movie solely on making the film about them, Jolie has found the perfect balance between adding her own acting traits to a role and letting the character come alive within the actor. Jolie’s performance doesn’t make the movie; it makes the movie better.
Aside from being a showcase to Jolie’s talents, the movie does a great job at being a conversation piece. Generally, weaker films need a controversial issue met with a controversial response to generate interest but while this is a strong film on its own merits, it does allow for plenty of controversy. Crime junkies will take great interest in how the movie portrays the issues within the LAPD during this period. The actions of the characters played by Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore are committed out of greed and lust for power or out of necessity and fears of losing power. There are times where you truly believe that Donovan’s Capt. Jones feels sympathy for Collins’s situation and at other times wishes he could reach across the desk and strangle her for all the trouble that she has caused. Another issue that raises interesting questions is whether Malkovich’s Briegleb character is really a religious figure or only uses his role as a priest to become a populist leader. Additionally, the situation surrounding Collins’s son is one for hot discussion, even after the credits roll.
Changeling could have been a disaster. Long movies can be a slog and anything beyond two hours can be difficult without creating a compelling story and interesting characters that make people want to watch. Time flies by in this movie and Jolie makes you care deeply about Collins’s struggle. It keeps you interested and intrigued from start to finish and beyond. This is a great movie and one that will keep you thinking for days after viewing.
This movie was originally reviewed on this site on March 27, 2009. The original review is mostly intact as there were a few sentences added and removed, but the overwhelming majority of the review (with some minor grammatical changes) and the original review score remains the same. Film stills were added for this revision.