Sometimes the truth is so bizarre that it really couldn’t have been made up. The factual story behind Clint Eastwood’s latest film is one such truth.
1928, Los Angeles: the local police department triumphantly reunite hardworking single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) with her son, who’s been missing for the past 5 months. What better way to begin a film than with a fairytale ending? There’s just one small hitch: as soon as she sees him, Christine knows that the boy is not her child. More bad publicity is the last thing the corrupt and extensively unpopular LAPD needs, and despite Christine’s desperate entreaties, the police refuse to admit their mistake.
Instead, they prefer to smear Christine in the eyes of the press, portraying her as a heartless, unfit mother. When she refuses to keep quiet, they attempt to ensure her silence, once and for all, by throwing her into a psychiatric hospital.
So begins a desperate battle between one woman and the seemingly invincible machinery of state power, from the crooked police force to the brutal psychiatric hospital manned by cold, manipulative staff. Both interested only in maintaining a status quo through which their own interests are furthered.
This is perhaps as close to feminism as mainstream Hollywood can get without having cynical motives in mind. Christine is shown to be the victim of a society which can conceive of women in only the most condescending terms, as hysterical, illogical, untrustworthy beings who ought to know their place and leave men to undertake the decision-making process on their behalf. This is a society in which the phrase ‘an independent woman’ is an insult. During its best moments, Changeling strikes a blow for the courageous individual fighting a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare and a damaging dominant ideology.
There are already rumours of Academy Award-recognition for Jolie’s portrayal of Christine. While her skeletal, pouting beauty betrays itself as incongruously modern within an otherwise immaculately recreated period setting, her performance is pitched just on the right side of melodrama throughout.Yet Jolie struggles to craft a three-dimensional character out of the material with which she is presented, never fully achieving a believable balance between Christine’s naturally docile nature and her tenacious strength and courage.
Any potential subtleties in her character — and all the others — are obscured by the film’s clear-cut presentation of good and evil. Christine is never anything but a selfless, devoted mother, and her nemesis Police Captain JJ Jones (an excellent Jeffrey Donovan) is never anything but the hateful baddie.
While the storyline is undoubtedly gripping, with 140 minutes’ worth of dense, twisting plot to grapple with and high-minded moral critiques to be made, there’s no space in the script for such niceties as subtle character development. The final line, in particular, falls into the category of notable clichés you will only ever hear spoken by characters in the movies.
And that’s the strange thing about this film.
Despite the fact that it is ‘a true story’, as its tagline proudly proclaims, and despite the fact that much of the script is based on genuine documentation of the case, Eastwood never creates much feeling of intimacy, or gives the viewer the sense that they are receiving anything approximating genuine psychological insight into the lives of real people. Changeling deals with the most basic and moving of human instincts, but in the end it is too grandiose and overblown a film to succeed on a human level.