Talk about creative mojo. In the past five years, Clint Eastwood has delivered an unbroken string of triumphs: Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima. Eastwood’s eye for shaping story and character has grown keener over the years (he’s 78). The proof of his sure touch and emotional acuity as a director is on powerful display in Changeling, a riveting true crime story set in Los Angeles in 1928, around the time Eastwood was born.
Angelina Jolie is a force of nature in lipstick and a cloche hat as Christine Collins, a single mother whose nine-year-old son, Walter, goes missing while she’s at work supervising a telephone switchboard, a job she does on roller skates. The LAPD, riddled with corruption, offers little help. And then, five months later, Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, slime with a badge) produces the boy at a train station, the perfect photo op. Only it’s not so perfect. Christine knows instantly that the boy isn’t her son. The cops call her neurotic and worse, despite support from radio evangelist Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich excels in a rare portrait of faith minus the clichéd fanaticism).
The police eventually throw Christine into a mental institution, where a deeper level of police depravity is uncovered (a big shout-out here to the superb Amy Ryan as an inmate with secrets). Add to that a serial killer (Jason Butler Harner), who may count Walter as one of his victims. There are times when Changeling seems like science fiction. (Hell, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski created TV’s Babylon 5.) But the incredible story is a matter of public record, and Straczynski tells it with artful finesse. Christine’s battle for her rights and, by extension, the rights of all women becomes a personal crusade. Though Changeling recalls Chinatown and L.A. Confidential in its indictment of a system decaying from the inside, it’s the human drama that pulls us in, to the haunting strains of Eastwood’s resonant score.
Jolie is inspired casting. She plays the role like a gathering storm, moving from terror to a fierce resolve. And Eastwood, at the peak of his artful powers, tightens the screws of suspense without ever forgetting where the heart of his film lies. Lesser hands might let the story sink into teary sentiment. Not Eastwood and Jolie. In saluting the warrior in Christine, star and director have made a mesmerizing film that burns in the memory.