Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 11/02/08 13:21:47

"A failure that’s more involving than most successes."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

'Changeling' is a film that features one element that more films could use: a great idea. Writer J. Michael Straczinski and director Clint Eastwood have made a based-on-true-story movie that’s actually intriguing.

Eastwood’s slow, detached handling is just right when he’s got an immaculately-written tale, but “Changeling” feels like a letdown despite several powerful moments because the adaptation could have used a little retooling before the cameras rolled.

In March of 1928, a single mother named Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returns home from work to discover that her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) hads been abducted. After a five-month investigation, the Los Angeles Police Department informs her that they’ve found her lost boy.

A quick glance at the lad, however, tells her otherwise. Despite the LAPD’s unswerving confidence in the case, she discovers her initial suspicions were right. The boy now living in her house is not as well-mannered as her own offspring, and he’s three inches shorter than Walter.

Despite having accumulated a pile of evidence that would dwarf Mt. Everest (if you think the height change is irrefutable evidence, what till you see what she discovers while bathing him), the cops simply dismiss her demand that the kidnapping investigation reopen as simply hysteria.

Because she’s been a pain to the close-minded captain (Jeffrey Donovan) of her precinct, Christine quickly learns that even law-abiding citizens can pay dearly for crossing with the LAPD. Because the most of the police haven’t got the courage or rectitude to admit they’ve made an obvious mistake, Christine’s only steady ally is an activist Presbyterian pastor named Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who uses his sermons and radio broadcasts to condemn police corruption and malpractice.

Collins’ fascinating story has been explored sporadically in print and might have been lost if Straczinski hadn’t been told that some of the city records that dealt with her case were about to be destroyed.

Having been a reporter long before he gained recognition as the creator of the science fiction television series “Babylon 5,” Straczinski would seem to be the ideal person to develop this tale.

“Babylon 5” was a consistently engrossing show because Straczinski created three-dimensional characters who just happened to come from outer space or have telekinetic gifts. Many allegedly serious dramas aimed at the small and the big screen didn’t have such involving heroes or villains.

Oddly, his characters seem a little sketchy this time around. Jolie demonstrates that her Oscar win in “Girl, Interrupted” was not a fluke, but through the later portions of the film Eastwood and Straczinski ask her to do little more than burst into tears on cue. Jolie certainly has the range, and the film’s feminist credentials are somewhat undermined by the proliferation of “Oscar-bait” moments.

Much of the power of Eastwood’s recent masterpieces like “Million-Dollar Baby” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” came from the actor-director’s vehement refusal to include tear-jerking scenes. A smart filmmaker, Eastwood often figures his viewers don’t need to be told how to react to a scene.

This time around, Eastwood doesn’t seem to trust his low-key instincts as much, and the film has sequences that almost derail the film. Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) gives it her all as a “hooker-with-heart-of-gold” who helps Christine, but the character seems like more of plot contrivance than an actual role.

The film also takes an eternity to reach its conclusion. The minutia of the Collins case makes for an anti-climactic courtroom sequence because the trail is so lopsidedly in Christine’s favor.

Despite some of the clichés and contrivances that mar “Changeling,” Eastwood and Straczinski frequently demonstrate why it was reasonable to expect a lot from their teamwork. Straczinski frames the story by contrasting Christine’s story of unwarranted police persecution against that of child-killer Gordon Stuart Northcutt (Jason Butler Harner). The latter is a walking advertisement for the death penalty.

Whereas Eastwood’s earlier films like “Dirty Harry” said that criminals were worth little more than target practice, “Changeling” demonstrates that letting institutions run rampant, without accountability, can be as evil as letting crooks run free. The new film presents a solid argument that preserving civil liberties is as important as punishing bad guys.

The off-center casting is also effective. Having Malkovich, who specializes in portraying villains, play Briegleb is a shrewd movie because his odd features and piercing voice give the character a much more nuanced feel than a conventionally-faced actor might have given it. It’s also refreshing to see how religion can be a force for good in the community. Fanaticism can alienate outsides from a faith and prevent followers from putting their beliefs to good use.

What’s fascinating about Briegleb’s campaign against the LAPD is that it’s doubtful he would have pursued his case so vigorously if he didn’t feel that God had directed him to do so. People don’t risk everything they have for anything less than a divine edict. It’s hard to imagine Briegleb doing what he did for a “pretty good idea.”

As it stands, “Changeling” is still a compelling and worthwhile film. It’s handsomely shot by Tom Stern, and Eastwood’s subtle, jazz-influenced score is just right for the proceedings. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to wish that he and Straczinski had refined the storytelling and the characters a little more. Collins and her unique story deserve nothing less than greatness.

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