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Clint Eastwood's Changeling

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Universal)

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Monday, November 03, 2008


Changeling
Directed by Clint Eastwood
(Universal)

Reviewed by Bruce Bennett

Like 2006’s Flags of Our Fathers and 2007’s Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, director Clint Eastwood’s third period-set film in a row cultivates an on-screen relationship with the era it depicts that veers from cozy to queasy. Though shot in color and widescreen, the film opens on a close-up of a vintage black-and-white Universal logo. In one image Eastwood sums up the mild strain of formal audacity that has helped make the director’s work a kind of latter-day gold standard for a broad constituency of filmgoers and critical tastemakers. This borderline anachronism is probably not the worst way to start a movie that feels no more of its time than Eastwood’s two prior journeys through the past.

On a different Pacific Coast than Eastwood’s last two pictures, we meet Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), an iron-willed single mother raising her angelic young son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) amidst the orange groves and bungalows of pre-sprawl 1928 Los Angeles. Returning late from work one night, Christine discovers that Walter has gone missing. The neighbors haven’t seen the boy and the cops flatly refuse to investigate until 24 hours have passed. What at first seems like municipal foot-dragging is, we’re told, a symptom of a culture of corruption amongst LA’s depression era boys in blue. The cops in the nascent City of Angels have so much blood on their hands in fact that a prominent moralist crusader, the Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), has made it his earthly business to see that LA’s police chief and the mayor who appointed him get the boot.

Reuniting the Collinses proves such an irresistible potential PR coup for the beleaguered LAPD that Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore) mobilizes his force to find Walter. But Christine’s vintage version of every mother’s worst nightmare takes a turn for the surreal when in a hail of flashbulbs and under the murmured emotional duress of Police Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) she reticently embraces a kid that she and we both know is not her son.

Christine’s dogged insistence that she has been brow-beaten into sharing her breakfast table with a pint-sized stranger provokes scorn and rebukes from Captain Jones and the LAPD brass. Threats escalate to outright atrocities as the young mother’s accusations earn her a trip to the county psycho ward with all the Francis trimmings, and her actual son’s relationship with a profoundly unbalanced man named Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) becomes clear. If there’s any doubt about Northcott’s motivations, one character helpfully describes him as a “serial killer” despite the term not being coined for another three and a half decades.

Angelina Jolie gamely essays her role with traces of a Sissy Spacek flatlands lilt to her voice and tears by the gallon. Like Meryl Streep in Eastwood’s equally estrogen-driven Bridges of Madison County, Jolie’s interpretation primarily revolves around nervously applying her hands and fingertips to her face and neck as frequently as the film’s double-header’s worth of circumstantial curveballs dictates. But the actress’s frankly tubercular profile and celebrated sensual gash of a mouth set her apart from the rest of the film’s central-casting recreation of Jazz Age America and ultimately makes it seem as if Greta Garbo had been mistakenly cast in a role meant for Susan Hayward.

For two generations of filmgoers of every level of discernment, Clint Eastwood’s prolific directorial output has become an exoneration for youthful worship of his on-screen ethos. Eastwood’s lethal gun-toting image has given way to a multiple-Oscar-winning, unabashedly humanist directorial persona that adheres to the thematic and dramatic middle of the road just as tenaciously as Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name squeezed the trigger. The same narrow band of colors in the moral rainbow in Eastwood’s formative on-screen work has prevailed in his outings behind the camera — it’s just shifted to the left and lightened up a bit.

Eastwood’s blind spot as a filmmaker remains a genuine disinterest in nuanced depictions of villainy. The characterizations of the forces of antagonism in his films are in fact so uniformly and interchangeably one-sided that it’s tempting to imagine they share their own fictional family lineage. Could the homely and sanctimonious psyche ward nurse in Changeling be the mother of the similarly unattractive and intolerant Iowa diner waitress who smugly clucked her tongue at small town infidelity in Bridges of Madison County? Is it possible to line the years up so that the LAPD’s unctuous Captain Jones and the despicable doctrinaire Imperial Army martinet in Letters From Iwo Jima were roommates in a pre-war international school exchange program?

A regularly repeated couplet in critical love sonnets written in praise of Eastwood’s filmmaking is that the director cultivates an admirably no-nonsense approach to getting his shots, meeting his schedules, and honoring his budgets. Increasingly Eastwood appears to meet his goals by relying on a mobile camera liberated from time and money consuming preparation by the Steadicam. But in Changeling the Steadicam’s characteristic bob and weave proves a poorly calibrated tool with which to evoke classical film grammar and a grounded sense of the movie past. The film also exhibits a few glaring lapses in technical execution that might have benefited from a more profligate approach to on set overtime. An ambitiously choreographed move down a long row of telephone operators is noticeable more for otherwise naturally posed extras ducking out of the way of the camera as it for any concrete story import. Likewise flashes of Jolie’s decidedly non-period tattoos glimpsed when Christine is stripped naked and tortured with a fire hose in the nuthouse.

With a few notable exceptions, nearly every Clint Eastwood film since Bird has been released to genuflecting praise and renewed recognition of its director as Hollywood filmmaking’s reigning elder statesman. But the clichéd madhouse shrieks, thunderous spontaneous courtroom applause, and dull thump of guilt-driven fists on interrogation room table-tops on display in Changeling tell a different story. Eastwood’s latest confirms its director as the dean of American melodramatists and as an accomplished yet unadventurous artist as uncomfortable with ambiguity as his admirers appear to be.


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