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.

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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.

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