Changeling (review)

Mother, Interrupted

This I will concede: I finally get what the big deal is about Angelina Jolie. I mean, I sorta got it before, but only in an intellectual way. I could see that she has that indefinable It you want from yer movie stars — it was just that I’d never really felt the It like a lightning bolt striking me myself. And, you know, if you don’t feel the lightning bolt, what’s the point?
But from the very opening moments of Changeling, I was under her spell. Totally. In that I-want-to-have-her-babies, I’m-melting-into-a-puddle-of-goo kind of way. She looks gorgeous, like she was born to wear those scrumptious 1920s dresses and those cloche hats and that bright red lipstick, but much more important than that, she’s oozing that mysterious charisma that’s half dazzling intelligence and half riveting talent and half the magic of the gods of Hollywood smiling on her, and through her. And I know that adds up to 150 percent: that’s the point. She’s like something out of that 1920s cinematic golden age. You want to watch her. You can’t not watch her.

Which is really, really ironic in the case of this flick, because I’m not sure Changeling should be about her character at all, or at least not to the extent that it is.

That may be a result of the fact that this is all based on real events in Los Angeles in the 1920s that screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (best known for Babylon 5 on TV, this is his first produced feature script) accidentally stumbled across in city archives. I suspect that he was so intent on sticking to the facts that he missed that the most pressing questions were probably never going to be answered by court transcripts and newspaper articles, and yet demanded exploration — even, yes, to the point of speculation — if they were going to make for a thoroughly satisfying story.

If you’ve seen the TV ads and trailers, you know the basics: In early 1928, nine-year-old Walter Collins (Gattlin Griffith) goes missing one Saturday while his mom, Christine (Jolie: A Mighty Heart, The Good Shepherd), single and their only financial support, is called in to work on what should be her day off. Five months later, the LAPD announces that they’ve found the kid. ’Cept, it turns out, it ain’t her kid. The LAPD begs to differ: it is her kid, they insist, and she’s clearly a crazy lady who’s crazy in the head for not knowing her own son. Collins begs to differ on the LAPD’s beg-to-differing, and keeps raising her voice about how this slightly freaky kid they returned to her is not her charming Walter.

And that’s where Changeling starts gettin’ weird. And not in a good way — in a way that makes you go, Huh? Now, there are certainly stories to be told about how women have been dismissed as “hysterical” or what have you when they make a nuisance of themselves, certainly in a pre-1960s-women’s-movement era like the 1920s. Certainly there are stories to be told about the corruption of the people who are supposed to protect and serve us. And though there are sideways tangential nods to telling those stories here, the primary driving theme here is: Gosh darn it, but look at what this woman will do for her child, ain’t that somethin’?

I want to be perfectly clear here: it’s not that Jolie is not truly captivating as a woman who will do anything for her child. But there’s an underdoneness here in everything beyond the character of Christine that makes this feel like a made-for-TV melodrama in a way that Jolie’s movie-star sheen cannot overcome. Changeling lets itself use shorthand that runs right along the grain of our preconceptions instead of challenging us to see past them, and that’s not at all what I would have expected from director Clint Eastwood (Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers). I expect a certain gravitas that is lacking here. I expect the unexpected. And I don’t get that.

Surely the great untold drama of this particular story is not that a mother would not give up on her child — is that news? Surely the great drama here is on the other side, with the police, with the specific, individual policemen — Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), head of the entire force, and Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan: Burn Notice), in charge of the Walter Collins case — who continue to lie to the press, to the public, and to Christine Collins her son even when all evidence points to the contrary. How did these men lie to themselves? How did they live with themselves? Shouldn’t the story be about them?

Those are the questions I want answered. They may be unanswerable, in the sense of actually knowing what those real men were thinking, but isn’t the point of drama to explore such things and try to find some kind of truth even if it’s not factually accurate? Changeling isn’t meant to be a documentary, and absent those vital motivations, the mystery of which is screaming to be solved, or at least touched on, everything else — including, alas John Malkovich’s (Burn After Reading, Beowulf) activist preacher, who joins Collins in a public shaming of the LAPD’s deceit — feels just a little bit cheap and obvious.

I know it’s terrible, but Changeling keeps making me think of Mel Gibson yelling, “Gimme back my son!” (which, hmm, was a product of Ron Howard, wasn’t it, who is also a producer on this film). There’s no great mystery in a parent wanting a child back, and yelling about it can’t make it any more tragic than it is. The mystery is why anyone not actually a psychopath — and it’s difficult to see those cops that way — would want to keep parent and child apart. And that mystery remains, frustratingly, unsolved.

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