Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Robert Lorenz
Marketed as more than just “based on a true story” but actually “a true story”, there’s a great piece of pulp fiction lurking beneath Changeling, a breathtaking recreation of early 20th century Los Angeles and a journey down a dark passage almost too lurid to support the claims of its advertising. That’s the dilemma of this highly touted spec script by J. Michael Straczynski, a career TV writer who was tipped off by a source at City Hall about a long forgotten case of a missing child and massive civic corruption. Ron Howard was eager to direct, until Frost/Nixon caught his attention. Howard’s name on the credits certainly doesn’t buy much critical cache these days, but as directed by Clint Eastwood, Changeling has a jeweler’s eye for historical detail and a rough edge that recalls James Ellroy, not Lifetime Television For Women.
Changeling moves through Los Angeles of yore by street car, where LAPD gun squads mowed through organized crime and women who threatened the department ended up branded as hysterical at best and in mental hospitals at worst. The drama is put into motion by a mass murder so gruesome it might have made Robert Stack piss himself, prime real estate for film noir, but promoted as a true life drama, the film’s intentions seems confused. The cast is superb, with Angelina Jolie’s exquisite features giving a silent film performance in a talkie and Amy Ryan doing work as her two-fisted friend. Unlike L.A. Confidential, the characters are unable to shake themselves out of the rigors of plot, but the fact that Eastwood chalks the sights and feelings of that noir classic so convincingly makes it worth visiting.
On March 10, 1928 in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is called to cover a shift at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, postponing an afternoon with her 9-year-old son Walter (Gatlin Griffith). Returning home to find Walter missing, Christine is unable to marshal the full resources of the LAPD, which according to the weekly radio address of a pastor at St. Paul’s Presbyterian named Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) ranks as “the most violent, corrupt and incompetent police department this side of the Rocky Mountains”. In July, police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) notifies Christine that her son has been found alive in Illinois. With the press in attendance as mother and son are reunited at Union Station, Christine does not recognize the boy who gets off the train to be Walter.
Despite assertions by Capt. Jones that Walter’s appearance may have changed due to his ordeal, neither Christine nor her son’s dentist or schoolteacher believe him to be the same boy. When she refuses to accept the LAPD’s conclusion and takes her story public, Jones has Christine interned at a psychiatric hospital. There, a prostitute (Amy Ryan) reveals that most of the women have been committed to keep them from making trouble for the beleaguered LAPD for one reason or another. While Briegleb and powerful attorney S.S. Hahn (Geoff Pierson) rally to her defense, Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) begins to unravel the ghoulish case of rancher Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) who appears to have kidnapped and murdered up to 20 boys before fleeing to Canada. Once captured, Northcott remains dubious as to whether or not Walter was one of his victims.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 191 users: 61% for Changeling
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 63 for Changeling
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