Eastwood Examines a Chapter of LA's Sordid Past in 'Changeling'

City Pulse | October 20, 2008
Based on a true story from Los Angeles, circa 1928, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a hard-working single mother whose nine-year-old son Walter is kidnapped. Months pass before the corruption-embattled LAPD delivers to Christine an imposter child three inches shorter than Walter, and circumcised. Christine's vocal protestations about the boy's identity are met with impunity by police Captain J.J. Jones (well played by Jeffrey Donovan -- TV's Burn Notice) who has Christine institutionalized in a psychiatric ward while local radio talk show Presbyterian minister Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) jumps to her defense. Apart from a flashing neon light coda that extends the film 10 minutes too far, Eastwood's drama is an engrossing drama with a keen line of social commentary.

After three panicked months of following up on the search for her son while working a day job as a switchboard manager on roller-skates, Captain Jones brings Christine to a train station where eager reporters await the mother-and-child reunion photo opportunity that will later be used against her. Were Christine not so vocal about the mishandled search for her son, Captain Jones would not attempt to pawn off another child on the distressed mother. So desperate is Captain Jones to silence Christine that he accuses her of attempting to "shirk" her maternal responsibilities in favor of living a libertine lifestyle before incarcerating her and committing her to an institution. Scenes between a manipulative psychopathic ward warden and Christine expand on the dead-end nature of her circumstance. Only if she signs a document stating that the imposter child is her own will she be allowed to leave the ward's slippery slope into certain insanity.

Changeling -- or "The Exchange" as it was originally titled -- is a real-life allegory of working-class women's oppression in a particular period of American history. Eastwood leaves the degree to which that trend continues today for the audience to contemplate within the subtext of a shocking story. During an era when a not-so-honorable LAPD competed with their criminal rivals for illicit cash by publicly murdering the competition in cold blood, problematic women were silenced by men in power that surreptitiously confined them in mental institutions. If a prostitute got beaten up by a client who happened to be a cop, not only was no aid available, but she might be secreted away to the imprisonment of a mental ward with a regime of drugs and shock treatment.

The linear script (by television and comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski) spins off into a kneeling reach for a life-affirming ending that strains the film's otherwise solidifying effect. Nonetheless, Changeling is a well-crafted film that shows Clint Eastwood expanding on deeply rooted themes with a humanist eye. You might want to see it twice.

(Universal) Rated R. 141 mins. (B+)
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