by Mel Valentin
In the ads, commercials, and trailers for "Changeling," a period drama/thriller set in the late 1920s, Angelina Jolie and Clint Eastwood ("Letters From Iwo Jima," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Million Dollar Baby," "Mystic River," "Unforgiven," "Bird," "Pale Rider," "The Outlaw Josey Wales") get mentioned the most. Jolie, of course, has the lead role in "Changeling" while Eastwood, an A-list action and director, has become associated with “prestige” Hollywood projects (i.e., Oscar bait). The one name you won’t hear much about (outside of the contractually required name on the poster or trailer credits) is screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski.Straczynski is best known as the creator, executive producer, and principal writer on Babylon 5, the well-regarded science fiction series that aired in syndication over five years. For Straczynski, Changeling was a labor of love, a script written on spec (i.e., on its own, without a buyer in place). Imagine Entertainment originally purchased Changeling for Ron Howard to direct (he passed due to a scheduling conflict). Eastwood stepped in later and, by his own admission, shot Straczynski’s script practically verbatim. That leaves Straczynski in the rare position of being the auteur responsible for Changeling. As stirring as that might be for would-be screenwriters, Changeling suffers from several, related problems, all of them traceable to Straczynski’s script: drama and conflict are often minimized to accommodate the facts behind Changeling.
"Earnest, well-meaning "social problem" film. Jolie's better than good, too."
At least initially, Changeling falls into the “social problem” sub-genre that once defined prestige Hollywood films. The focus is on Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single, working mother, who, one fateful day in March of 1928, loses her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith). Forced to work at extra shift at the telephone company, she leaves Walter alone on a Saturday. Christine trusts the relative safety of her Los Angeles neighborhood and her neighbors to look in on Walter while she works. When she returns home, however, Walter is gone and nowhere to be found. The police refuse to begin an immediate search for Walter and force Christine to wait 24 hours before filing a missing persons report.
When weeks pass without news, a local pastor and radio personality, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), helps to spread the word about Christine and Walter. The head of the Missing Persons Bureau, Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), steps in to lead the investigation. Five months later, Jones informs Christine that Walter’s been found in Illinois. The boy (Devon Conti) they bring back, however, isn’t Walter. With the press looking on, Jones convinces Christine to take the boy home with her. When she refuses to accept the boy as Walter, Jones begins a campaign to discredit her, first sending a psychologist to evaluate her mental state and later, when she goes public with her claims, institutionalizing her in a mental hospital.
But Christine’s battle against the ruthless Powers-That-Be, as institutionalized in the LAPD and the mental hospital, covers only part of Changeling’s running time. As Christine’s predicament worsens, a possible culprit for Walter’s disappearance emerges, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), the owner of a chicken ranch in the sparsely populated town of Wineville (now Mira Loma). The two storylines eventually merge into a murder trial and a commission hearing held simultaneously in the LA courthouse. Northcutt’s responsibility for Walter’s disappearance, however, is one among several questions that Eastwood and, presumably, Straczynski leave unanswered.
While Straczynski deserve considerable credit for following historical events, with minor exceptions, it came at a price: the usual resolutions moviegoers expect from traditional filmmaking. Unfortunately, that open-endedness makes Changeling less than satisfying, dramatically or emotionally. Changeling includes several “endings,” to the commission hearing, to Northcutt’s trial, and ultimately, to Christine’s quest for her son or information about her son, all or most of which scrupulously follows the historical record Straczynski amassed before writing Changeling. Tension, suspense, and momentum also give in to the relative ambiguity of the historical record.While Straczynski’s screenwriting choices may be open to debate, Eastwood’s sure-handed direction isn’t, nor is the period-perfect production design, the sun-drenched cinematography, or, most important of all, Angelina Jolie’s performance as Christine Collins. Undoubtedly talented, Jolie has often given overly mannered performances. That couldn’t be further from the truth here. Jolie gives a naturalistic, grounded, understated performance, focusing on the small gestures and inflections in her voice to convey Collins’ emotional vulnerability and often unbearable suffering. Award-seeking as it may be, it may just be the best performance of Jolie’s career by any objective and subjective measurement.
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originally posted: 10/24/08 03:16:04