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"Changeling" has opened with lots of acclaim for Angelina Jolie's performance as Christine Collins, a mother in 1928 Los Angeles whose child has been kidnapped, and who then is brutally manhandled by the corrupt Los Angeles police department when she denies that the child they give her back is not her own. It's all taken from a true story, and although Clint Eastwood must have thought it would make a great movie, the sad truth is it doesn't. Partly it has to do with the fact that we know early on that a) the boy whom the police deliver to her is obviously not her own, and b) the disappearance of the boy was never solved to a certainty, so it would be hard to find a conclusion to the story. And then partly it is the script, by J. Michael Straczynski, who is both too literal with his factual retelling, and too shallow with his characters; what we see is what we get; never does he give us more depth to any of them.
So where can the film go? Lots of screen time is taken up with documenting for us the corrupt, vicious work of the cops and their allies. When Christine denies that the child is hers, the police find a way to first insult her intelligence and then throw her into the psychopathic ward of the municipal hospital. She has an ally, a radio preacher named the Reverend Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian who had already made a crusade of uncovering the corruption of the police. And in the hospital she finds another patient, Amy Ryan, the actress who was so brilliant as the bad mother in "Gone, Baby, Gone." Ryan is once again amazing here as well.
But the crucial role is the police captain, played by Jeffrey Donovan, who orchestrates the entire police coverup. Donovan has adopted a strange accent, partly Boston Irish, partly L.A., but never believable, and with his one expression, a sour smile, he quickly becomes boring; there is a hole in the middle of the film.
And then, about two-thirds of the way through "Changeling," Eastwood and Straczynski introduce another element: the ranch outside Los Angeles where it is likely that Walter and as many as twenty others were taken and killed. No doubt, this was also taken from the facts as we know them, but it's also a whole new film. In fact, the murderer, a Canadian played wonderfully by a newcomer, Jason Butler Harner, is Gordon Northcott, a sad and of course desperately creepy villain. But we aren't privy to any of his background, though Roger Ebert, in his review, tells us that Northcott was the child of his sister and his father, which Ebert must have gotten from the press notes or an early cut, because it is not in the cut of the film we see now.
Jolie, who did such great work as Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart," simply runs through all emotions here - anger, fear, frustration, hope - as Christine Collins. We see her act them all out, instead of seeing Christine herself. John Malkovich, as the Rev. Briegleb, is strange casting because of his drawling and effeminate voice, but he works just fine. Eastwood has directed with his usual staightforward manner, but this time we wish for a more nuanced approach.
10/7/08 <! new pasted review ends on line above>