In Like Clint

Changeling
Running Time 140 minutes
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael
Kelly, Jason Butler Harner, Amy Ryan

From chicken shit to chicken salad, don’t miss Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s absolutely true and overwhelmingly gripping saga of how crime and police corruption in 1920s Los Angeles led to a lifelong ordeal for a single mother named Christine Collins, a career-defining role for Angelina Jolie.

One sunny Saturday in 1928, while Christine works extra duty as a telephone-company supervisor, her bright, sensitive 9-year-old son Walter mysteriously disappears from her home in broad daylight without a trace. Several months later, the crooked LAPD, anxious to avoid growing newspaper hostility and calm jangled public nerves, find a boy left as collateral in an Illinois diner by a drifter. The hysterical mother rushes to the train depot to claim her lost son, but it is the wrong child, even though he throws his arms around her and calls her “Mother.” Desperate to reverse an already blemished reputation and close the case, the cops insist she is wrong, even though he is three inches shorter than Walter and circumcised. (The police insist trauma has shrunk his spine.) “I’m the mother,” she cries, claiming she knows her own son better than anyone. “Which means you can’t be objective,” they counter. Thus begins a horror story shrouded in mystery, false clues and paralyzing suspense that will leave you breathless.

Dental records proved it was not the same boy. In his old classroom, he doesn’t even remember his old desk. Five months after his disappearance, Christine takes her case to the press, provoking a scandal that leads to involvement with an eccentric religious zealot (played by the eccentric John Malkovich), involuntary incarceration in a lunatic asylum and a harrowing subplot about the search for a serial killer who abducted, sexually abused, then slaughtered dozens of boys Walter’s age and buried their remains on an abandoned chicken ranch. Salvation finally greets the dawn when one honest cop believes the confession of the lunatic’s teenage accomplice, tracks down the killer and drags the police force into court with the aid of the most powerful lawyer in L.A., who takes Christine’s case pro bono. After a 10-year nightmare, Christine becomes an accidental beacon of hope for the poor and disenfranchised, and a crucible for legal reform in Prohibition-era Los Angeles that returned dignity and justice to the law books.

The records of Christine Collins’ bravery and the struggle that led to the police commission hearings, housed in the dusty archives underneath the Los Angeles City Hall, provided the facts for J. Michael Straczynski’s brilliant screenplay. It took a masterful director with the artistry and vision to bring a whole era to life, and Clint Eastwood files every detail vividly, unraveling every clue and sparing no shocks in a great crime story, without once losing his grip on the human elements. Changeling is the real deal, as good as any film he has ever made, and 10 times more electrifying than most. It grabs you by the throat and never lets go.

If I have one caveat, it’s Angelina Jolie. She works hard, and I applaud the fact that there’s no annoying sense of self-lacerating defeatism in her performance, but there is, to be honest, a bit too much self-conscious posing for close-ups to convincingly serve the power of the narrative. It’s like her mind is less concerned with the bigger canvas Mr. Eastwood is painting, a Chinatown film noir Los Angeles, and more worried if her tattoos are showing. Otherwise, it’s a fabulous movie.

rreed@observer.com

In Like Clint