Thursday, October 30, 2008
Crimes on both sides of the legal fence
Some movies are worth seeing because because they tell a story that's beyond belief. And when that story happens to be true, the appeal becomes even greater. That's pretty much the way I felt about "The Changeling," the latest movie from Clint Eastwood. It rescues the lost history of sensational crimes of the 1920s -- committed by an unhinged serial killer and a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department.
It no longer should surprise anyone that Eastwood is a capable and sometimes inspired director, and it shouldn't be taken as a hard knock that "Changeling," driven by one woman's determination, probably doesn't rank among Eastwood's best work. It's not on a level with "Unforgiven," "Mystic River" or "Letters from Iwo Jima."
The story -- probably a footnote in the great scheme of things -- centers on Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a telephone operator whose 10-year-old son disappears while she's at work. At one point, a boy is returned to Collins. She insists the kid isn't her son. The rest of the story should be discovered in a theater, where you'll also see a nicely restrained performance from John Malkovich as Gustav Briegleb, a radio preacher who crusades against corruption in the LAPD. You'll also see some very creepy moments that revolve around a smiling killer (Jason Butler Harner).
The cop to watch is the villainous Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), a police officer more concerned with protecting a corrupt department than with discovering the truth.
I couldn't entirely decide about Jolie's performance, which never begs for sympathy, but which may be overly guarded. With her bright red lipstick and 1920s wardrobe, Jolie makes Collins into an icon of strength and commitment, but it can seem as if she's stuck behind a virtuous mask. Collins isn't an easy character to know. She's lost a child. She's adamant about wanting him back. Maybe that's enough.
Working with cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood gives "Changeling" an almost antique look that sometimes makes the drama feel a bit musty, but the real problem with the movie is structural, which I presume is the responsibility of a script by J. Michael Straczynski. The story peaks about three quarters of the way through, but the script sticks around, showing us lots of aftermath. "The Changeling" winds up ticking off events until there's nothing left. Eastwood meticulously recounts the tale of Christine Collins, but a meticulous approach doesn't always make for the most exciting movie. Eastwood, who does nothing to diminish his status as a fine director, bravely ventures into tabloid turf, but instead of furious drama, we get somber reflection, noble sorrow and a plea to retain hope.