Changeling (2008)

Very Good

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on November 6, 2008 in Fayetteville Free Weekly.

Clint Eastwood is a vital force of nature. Born May 31, 1930, the unflappable 78-year old director is still creating powerful, unique movies. Changeling is remarkable evidence of that.

What a career the man has had. No one would ever have imagined in 1954 when he appeared in a small part in Francis in the Navy that Clint would ever amount to anything in the movies.

Even in 1964 when Clint was the taciturn Man With No Name in Fistful of Dollars, it was difficult to imagine Clint behind the camera. Maybe one day he could helm simple action movies, but no way he would make significant works of art. But the Man With No Name has a Name that reverberates worldwide. And internationally he is a celebrated artist.

Clint Eastwood has won two Academy Awards for directing two Best Pictures of the Year, Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). There is no director internationally that has had the run Clint has the last five years, Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). Now Changeling fills Clint's winning full house.

Once again Eastwood tries something different. He goes back to an actual happening starting in 1928 and going well into the 1930s. And being an avid student of film, Eastwood pays homage to the strong, independent actresses and female characters of the movies of the 1930s.

Changeling is based, at times a little loosely, on an event that happened in Los Angeles. A young boy Walter was kidnapped while his mother Christine Collins was at work as switchboard supervisor at a phone company. The LAPD didn't act immediately, but eventually returned a boy to Christine; however, she insisted he wasn't her son. This resulted in a battle between the LAPD and the willful woman who kept refusing to accept that the boy was her son.

At the same time the police were drawn into a horrible murder case that involved young boys. Both cases collided with shocking results.

Changeling may be more of an audience picture than a reviewers' picture. On Rottentomatoes.com, Changeling only received a 53 percent favorable rating from reviewers.

Some reviewers reject Angelina Jolie, from her acting to her big, red lips. But Changeling is melodramatic in its homage to the movies of the 1930s, so at times Angelina is a broad broad. She does wear eye liner in the mental institution into which Christine is cast by the police. But, ladies, cut her a break. Her bright red lips are symbolic. They make her standout in a world that is somber.

Eastwood and his stellar director of photography Tom Stern use color that is washed-out, diffuse, and muted. The red lips of Christine Collins emphasize her boldness in a dark environment. I'm sure Clint likes the character of Christine Collins; she's his kind of character, sensitive and strong.

An apt allusion to the movies of the 1930s is that Christine roots for It Happened One Night to win the Oscar for Best Picture of 1934. (It won over Cleopatra. Claudette Colbert starred in both pictures, and she won Best Actress for her performance as the independent woman in It Happened One Night.) It's an odd coincidence that both Claudette Colbert and Christine Collins are CCs.

Other than Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich who plays the one-dimensional part of an evangelist ally of Christine, the rest of the cast is not big name.

Jeffrey Donovan (TV's Burn Notice) portrays the police captain J.J. Jones, who refuses Christine's pleas, and acts against her. Jason Butler Harner plays Gordon Stewart Northcott, the wretched, sadistic chicken farmer.

Eastwood's touch in casting actors who add humanity to their characters is seen in Michael Kelly, who plays a detective whom fate befalls, and Geoff Pierson, who plays the attorney who fiercely defends Christine. Both characters have a palpable humanity.

Since Eastwood is an auteur we see personal strokes. His themes and style echo from film to film. In Changeling he creates his patented music: subdued piano and strings.

He cast his daughter Morgan in a cameo as a girl on a bicycle. When we see one scene at Bummy's Diner, we know that Clint is paying dear homage to his late long-time friend and colleague Henry Bumstead. (Even the role of Bummy in Changeling is played by actor J. P. Bumstead.)

When I interviewed Clint for Million Dollar Baby (Brightlightsfilm.com, Issue 47), he ended our interview by quoting Kris Kristofferson's line, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Clint said, "That's a wonderful lyric." It's one he keeps reprising.

In Changeling he and writer J. Michael Straczynski utilize a form of that line when a character (the wonderful Amy Ryan) says to Christine about harsh language: that exactly when you use it is when "you've got nothing left to lose."

Clint's values are inviolate. Maybe it seems a bit strange to consider Clint as a moralist, but his movies continually focus on the hard struggle between good and evil, and how one finds redemption in a cruel world.

Two quibbles. I wish Clint hadn't decided to use Christine's last word. It's too obvious. And after the action has ended, we read on screen what has happened to the people. It's misleading, because two of the figures later were reinstated to their positions.

But overall, Changeling joins Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1999) in brilliantly portraying a valiant attempt to fight against evil and corruption. It's a fight that Clint Eastwood knows will never end. For Clint, it's a fight worth forever fighting.


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