Movie Review: Changeling
By Matthew Huntley
October 31, 2008

He's cute but I've already adopted 8 kids this week. Also, he's...American.

Clint Eastwood's Changeling deliberately evokes the look and feel of a 1930s Hollywood melodrama. As such, the language is old-fashioned, the narrative is straightforward, and the characters project values typical of the era. Even at the head of the picture is the initial Universal Pictures logo.

Eastwood's strategy makes sense since the movie takes place in 1928 and spans seven years to a time when such a picture might have actually been released, albeit a much tamer version. Every effort is made by the filmmakers to convince us we're in the late '20s - from the sets and props to the characters' naive behavior.

But given the breadth and detail of the production, I'm wondering why Eastwood didn't choose to shoot the movie in black and white. After all, if he's going to envision the plot and characters in black and white terms, why not shoot it that way?

It comes as a surprise to call Changeling Eastwood's most patronizing work to date. The director typically shows a knack for subtlety and complexity with his stories, but here he comes across as blatant and unimaginative. Throughout the film, Eastwood overtly designates the good vs. evil, the saints vs. sinners, the heroes vs. villains. There's no gray area, which is usually the part that gets us thinking.

This is a shame since Eastwood has such a compelling story on his hands. On March 10, 1928, in a leafy suburb of Los Angeles, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother, is called into work on a Saturday afternoon (she's a supervisor at the Pacific Telephone Company). Being the 1920s and all, Christine sees no problem in leaving her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), home alone. But hours later, when she returns, Walter is missing.

Christine calls the police, but they tell her they require at least 24 hours go by before responding to a missing child report because "99 times out of a 100, the child returns home on his own." By this point, the movie, based on a true story, has already established its agenda of bringing to light the corruption and unjust practices of the 1920s L.A.P.D. Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) preaches on the radio about the city's tainted law enforcement and dedicates his life to exposing their wrongdoings.

Weeks go by and the police tell Christine they've found Walter in DeKalb, Illinois. But when Christine meets him at the train station, she's devastated to find out the boy is not her son. Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) says she's mistaken and asks Christine to take the boy home on a "trial basis." Jones will do anything to avoid public embarrassment and any further evidence of his force's ineptitude. For the sake of the boy, Christine agrees and almost entertains the notion he could be Walter, at least until she finds out he's circumcised and three inches shorter in height. Christine thinks if she continues to pretend it's her son, the police will stop looking for the real Walter. Therefore, she puts up a fight.

The L.A.P.D., headed by Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore), is fearful of bad publicity and instructs the captain to hire a doctor (Peter Gerety) to explain why the boy has changed physically. The doctor suggests the boy's traumatic experience could have caused his spine to shrink and that whoever kidnapped him was sick enough to circumcise him.

But Christine continues to insist it's not Walter, after which the captain accuses her of being a derelict mother scheming to hand over her maternal responsibility to the state. Therefore, he has her locked up in the psychopathic ward of the Los Angeles County Mental Hospital, where she meets other women who've suffered the same persecution when they've stood up to the police.

In a parallel plot, an L.A. detective (Michael Kelly) is called out to investigate a Canadian boy living illegally in Riverside County. He comes upon a nearly deserted ranch where the boy (Eddie Alderson) has been living with his older cousin, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner). When he's about to be deported, the boy admits he and Northcott have committed unspeakable crimes against little boys, one of whom may be the real Walter Collins. The movie sees this remaining plot, based on the real-life Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, all the way through and you get the sense two different movies could have been made out of all this material.

Eastwood has a grand and epic story on his hands, that's for sure, but he undermines it by failing to show any of the characters as anything but what the plot requires them to be. He seems too intent on keeping the audience satisfied, to make us feel justice has been served, that he sacrifices the complexity of the situations.

The L.A.P.D., along with the doctors and staff from the psychopathic ward, are placed at the extreme end of evil. They're never viewed as anything else and end up being one-dimensional. Eastwood also fails to be adventurous in the way he plays out his story. It's extremely literal and safe. He needed to experiement with his narrative more.

I also felt Eastwood exploited Angelina Jolie, especially in the scene where a nurse inspects her genitals. It's not what the nurse is doing that's offensive, but the way Eastwood films it, which is obviously meant to make us shudder and grow angry. The problem is, it's too obvious. We get it, these people are not nice. Why pound that into us?

On the other end of the spectrum, Christine Collins and the movie's other "good guys" are painted in too positive a light, so much that it borders on self-righteousness. We get it: Christine is a victim and a hero. She's brave and angelic. How many times must the movie establish her as the moral superior? It also stretches credulity to think Christine was single-handedly responsible for the release of all the wrongly accused women in the psychopathic ward, and that she'd be able to accompany her lawyer, S.S. Hahn (Geoffrey Pierson), when the women are set free. I realize "Code 12" was real, but the movie makes it seem like it played out incredibly smooth, just like, well, a Hollywood movie.

I know - the movie is mimicking 1930s melodrama with its simplified characterizations and plot. But just because these same narrative problems existed 80 years ago doesn't mean they're more excusable now. In fact, I feel I should be more critical. A director like Eastwood should know better.

Eastwood tends to receive a lot of praise from critics because of his classical storytelling methods. He's admired for "trimming the fat," if you will, and only keeping in what's necessary. That's not the case here. If anything, Eastwood keeps too much in and is not ambitious enough in the way he moves his camera, edits his scenes or shows the ranges of his characters. It's dry and exactly what we expect.

The movie also goes on for too long. More than one scene misleads us into thinking the end is near, and just when we think we have our resolution, the screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski milks it for more. The last scene is particularly frustrating because it's simply an excuse to label another one of the good guys a hero.

I liked the look and feel of Changeling in terms of its technical production, and Angelina Jolie is sympathetic and powerful in the lead role, but Eastwood waters down too much of the story to simplified moralizing. I'm sure it showed a lot of promise on paper, but instead of letting the audience decide what to make of the characters and situations, we're shown what to think, and after that, we're told.