Combustible Celluloid
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With: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan, Gattlin Griffith
Written by: J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: R for some violent and disturbing content, and language
Running Time: 140
Date: 05/20/2008

Changeling (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Missing Reaction

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Clint Eastwood photographs Angelina Jolie just as he would photograph himself, using her considerable presence as a mere suggestion, and drawing focus to her eyes, either shining bright -- perched above impossibly large, red lips -- or hidden under the slim shadow of her hat, depending on the situation. More often than not, those eyes are spilling over with tears, as Changeling is one of the most brutal movies to come out of Hollywood in years. In fact, Eastwood made it for Universal rather than his longtime home at Warner Bros.; after the financial failure of his war movie double feature (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), they probably insisted on something more upbeat. But now working for producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Eastwood's new film, though worth seeing, occasionally falters. Once or twice, Jolie breaks out of her timid character for a blatant audience-pleasing gesture, and the film has a difficult time keeping up its dreadful balancing act for 140 long minutes.

In this based-on-a-true-story movie, Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in 1928. Working at the phone company (skittering around the busy control panels on roller skates), she's forced to leave her 9 year-old son home to pick up a last-minute Saturday shift. When she returns home, he's gone. After a five-month search, the Los Angeles Police Department returns a boy to her, but she insists that it's not her son. Unwilling to look bad in front of an army of reporters, the police -- led by Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) -- bully her into accepting the situation. (She must be overwhelmed by emotion; the boy has changed a lot in five months, etc.) Of course, she later discovers facts of her own that prove it, but the LAPD won't budge. Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who regularly trashes the corrupt LAPD on his radio broadcasts, decides to help her. But before her ordeal is over, she will be thrown into an asylum, and there will be an investigation into a serial child murderer (played with twisted gusto by Jason Butler Harner).

Eastwood is one of our greatest living filmmakers, and he turns in a good, well-made movie, but his straightforward, bread-and-butter approach doesn't always work with material this grim. Steven Spielberg understood on Schindler's List that an audience needed rest breaks, moments of comfort and hope, to see them through the dark material. Eastwood is braver than that, and his movie doesn't pander, but since the movie is based almost entirely on the emotional content of the situation rather than the details -- it's the opposite of David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) -- it perhaps needed a little bit more finesse, some ebb and flow. (Eastwood's delicate jazz-piano score helps.) But even if Angelina Jolie comes away with an Oscar nomination for her tormented, depth-plumbing performance, I'm not sure how many people are going to want to take the test of sitting through this movie. Those that do will find an overpowering and unforgettable experience.

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