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Mother, Interrupted

Changeling (2008)

Tony Rivetti, Jr./Universal Studios

Clint Eastwood's latest film, "Changeling" – starring Angelina Jolie – dramatically explores the true story of a woman, her son, and an unusual abduction. The plot centers around a single mother, Christine Collins (Ms. Jolie), whose son Walter disappears one day in 1928. Desperate with grief and concern, she puts her faith in the Los Angeles Police Department, which is suffering from major public-relation problems due to excessive force and corrupt dealings. Months later, she receives news that her boy has been found. But when she meets him at the train station, she is less than joyful. The boy is clearly not her son, and she makes her feelings known to the people who brought him to her. The LAPD is unable to own up to the mistake, insisting that he is her boy but – due to his abduction and time away from home – perhaps he has "changed."

With the aid of the local truth-seeking Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), Collins begins fighting the police, who are anxious to keep any missteps out of the public eye. When her voice becomes too loud, she is institutionalized in a mental ward, where many of the local authority-flouting women have ended up as well. Collins's ardent pursuit of justice constitutes the strongest part of the film, and allows it to transcend beyond a historical "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!" or a gory murder mystery. The film at times becomes a stirring indictment of the powers that be – more specifically, a patriarchal system that actively refuses to listen to women and children. It is during the quiet moments of claustrophobia, such as an interview with the psychologist at the mental ward, where the direction is the strongest and shies away from Hollywood melodrama. Ms. Jolie's Collins answers in short, pleasant sentences as she anxiously tries to prove her sanity to the doctor, who writes down lengthy comments on his notepad, murmuring to himself. The tension in the room is so palpable that it's almost funny, were it not so terrifying.

Unfortunately, this was the film's high point and Mr. Eastwood still had many minutes to go. Like most movies today, "Changeling" is much too long and winds up feeling bloated soon after Collins proves her sanity and the LAPD is forced to admit its deceit. Finding her son's true killer turns into another plot, at times overly sentimental and at others gratuitously violent. (I think most of the audience members can imagine the murder of a young child and don't need to see it spelled out so explicitly and tastelessly.) The film also touts itself as "a true story" (no "based on" here) but embellishes and distorts many facts. For example, the little boy who impersonated Walter Collins did so of his own accord, and was not coerced by the police, as explained in the film. The abuse of power is already so extreme in this story that it seems unnecessary to embellish upon it.

With the exception of the ubiquity of cloche hats and Model T's, the film does not go overboard with the tasteful 1920s production design, allowing viewers to focus instead on the emotional and political drama unfolding. And while many actresses could have played the role of Christine Collins competently, Ms. Jolie does have that certain captivating quality, that glow. It is nearly impossible to keep one's eyes off of her throughout the film, and she gives a solid performance, whether she is quietly dealing with her grief or physically battling nurses at the mental ward, where she is being forced to take medicine for her so-called condition. 

And lastly, on power, once again. As Senator Roark said in "Sin City" – itself a tale of political corruption – "Power don't come from a badge or a gun. Power comes from lying. Lying big, and gettin' the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain't true, you've got 'em by the balls." While "Changeling" is sometimes overpowered by its music, melodrama, and never-ending subplots, at its heart it is about a woman and the Man. A look at our country today, it doesn't seem all that different from the Los Angeles experienced by Christine Collins in 1928. The film's reminder of that was powerful enough for me.


Opens on Oct. 24 in the United States and on Nov. 28 in Britain.

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by J. Michael Straczynski; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Mr. Eastwood; production designer, James J. Murakami; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Robert Lorenz; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Angelina Jolie (Christine Collins), John Malkovich (the Rev. Gustav Briegleb), Jeffrey Donovan (Capt. J. J. Jones), Michael Kelly (Detective Lester Ybarra), Colm Feore (Chief James E. Davis), Jason Butler Harner (Gordon Northcott), Amy Ryan (Carol Dexter) and Devon Conti (Arthur Hutchins).


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