November 3, 2008

Movie Review: Changeling

changeling1_largeWatching this film is like being put through an emotional roller coaster. After screening Changeling, I was absolutely drained from the experience. Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort is a movie of impressive emotional effect, it is one that draws you in, makes you care, and allows you to become a participant in its tale of loss, corruption, hope, and rage. It is a powerful journey with characters whose lives will stick with you long after the last credits role. Just don't confuse this as a remake of the 1980 horror film The Changeling, that is a completely different beast.

Changeling is based on a true story of a woman whose son disappeared under mysterious circumstances and her crusade to find him and bring him home alive. Just how closely the events portrayed in the film resemble reality is any ones guess. The thing with any film based on a true story is that they are invariably going to be "punched up" to make the events more dramatic in order to capture the audience. As we all know, reality is boring. If you want reality, all you need is to step out your front door. In order to make reality more inviting on the screen it needs to be amped up a little, made bigger than life. I believe the broad strokes are accurate, but the finer points have likely been adjusted. Still, true or not, this is a tragic story that grabs your heart and squeezes.

changelingpic3What makes this movie so good and shows just how good a director Clint Eastwood is, is the way the story unfolds. The story seems to be one perfectly set up to be a traditional thriller, but that is not what is done here. The approach here certainly has some thriller elements, but it chooses to allow the story to unfold, unspooling its drama through outrage, protest, and a desire to find the truth.

In March of 1928 Christine Collins went to work and when she returned home her 9-year-old son, Walter, was missing. A police investigation followed, after months of searching Walter was found in Illinois. An ecstatic Christine could not wait to be reunited with her son. There was only one problem, the boy that stepped off the train was not Walter. Christine said as much and the police just thought she was distraught and not thinking clearly. They stuck to their story despite the youngster not knowing her school teacher, being 3-inches shorter upon his return, and have details not matching his dental records. Still, the police stood by their story that this was Walter, thus ending the search that Christine fought to keep open.

changelingpic12That may sound like enough, but there is much more to her story, including issues with the police department as a whole, all helping to take this tale to a larger, even more tragic level. You see, the police force was corrupt, taking their guns and hitting the streets. They planted evidence, forced false testimony, killed whoever got in their way, and was suffering from a poor public image. It is this story of a lost and found boy that is positioned to be their saving grace, help get them back in favor with the people and to reveal they had the wrong boy, well, you get the picture. This lands Christine in the psychopathic ward where she could be kept quiet, away from the public eye.

Believe it or not, there is even more to it than that. There is the work of a local reverend who has a radio show that regularly targets the corrupt police department, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), an important figure to the big picture. We also have the other women of the psych ward whose only crime was being an annoyance to a police officer. However, there is one element that overshadows all others, the events that take place at the Northcott farm. These revelations cast a pall over everything else, and I admit to being shocked by what is revealed. You see, the trailer hinted at none of this, and it just gave the film that much more of an impact.

changelingpic20The cast does a fantastic job of bringing this story and time period to life. Leading the way is Angelina Jolie in a role that initially struck me as Oscar-bait. I know, that is a loaded statement, but it is a feeling that quickly faded as Jolie inhabited this woman, bringing a powerful performance to bear in this highly emotional story. John Malkovich is solid, once again, as the Reverend who takes on Christine's mission. Not to be forgotten is Jeffrey Donovan as Captain Jones, the cocksure cop who believes he is in the right, he has to believe it and no one else can convince him otherwise. Oh yes, the most charismatic and frightening of characters is portrayed by Jason Butler Harner as Gordon Northcott, a man whose presence on screen commands your attention as he inhabits the persona of a killer blessed with a phony charm.

Clint Eastwood turns in yet another excellent directorial turn. He has a style that is as distinct as it is not flashy. He brings this era to life in fine fashion, keeping the story and characters on track through its intense story and even pacing. However, what I found surprising was that he was working from a script by J. Michael Straczynski. I am most familiar with him as a science fiction (Babylon 5) and comic book writer, this is another side of a man who knows his way around a keyboard, turning in a fine script.

Bottomline. This movie had an impact well beyond what I was expecting. It is dramatic, frightening, and undeniably compelling. It is a true-life story that will put you through the emotional wringer.

Highly Recommended.

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