I wish that more Oscar-nominated films released to DVD before the program airs. It can be difficult, and not a little expensive, to see them all in the theaters. I am glad that Changeling released on DVD this week so that I could catch Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-nominated performance for best lead actress. While this category seems like a tight race and Jolie is a worthy nominee, I found myself totally engrossed in one of the most haunting films of last year, rather than being particularly enthralled by her performance.
Changeling tells the story of Christine Collins (Jolie), a young single mother in 1920s Los Angeles whose son, Walter, suddently disappears. When Christine files a report with the Los Angeles Police Department, she quickly experiences a nightmare of corruption and ineptitude that compounds the horror of losing her son. Lead by Capt. J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the LAPD cook up a phony reunion between Collins and her “son,” a boy who looks somewhat like her real son, but who Christine knows is a fake. The police see this as an opportunity to make up for the bad press they have continually received, and when Christine begins to make a public outcry that would further embarrass the force, they begin to take drastically unjust measures to shut her up. A single mother in the ’20s, Christine has few advocates, save for a passionately social justice minded Presbyterian minister, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who champions her cause and raises awareness of her plight through his weekly radio shows. Parallel to Capt. Jones’ efforts to make Christine go away, another detective uncovers a series of grisly murders that have implications for Jones’ work.
Few directors in Hollywood have turned out a series of such successful films as Clint Eastwood. It seems as if his films become more ethically and morally complex as he ages. His latest film, Gran Torino, is certainly one of this year’s biggest Oscar snubs for best picture, actor, and director. Changeling suffers slightly for being a bit too long, but this length, on the other hand, contributes to the film’s emotional impact. At every turn, Christine finds yet another obstacle or form of oppression, and each time we feel dragged further down some horrific rabbit hole.
Like the television series Mad Men, Changeling reminds us that the good ‘ol days were not necessarily all that good. These times could be especially difficult for single mothers (or women in general) whose voices were overshadowed, or eclipsed, by their male counterparts. Capt. Jones sees Christine’s emotions of wanting her son back as forms of delusion and her unwillingness to accept the fake as an attempt to skirt her maternal responsibilities.
In a television interview, Eastwood said that one of the elements of the script (written by J. Michael Straczynski) that drew him to the project was the character of Rev. Briegleb. That being said, I wish his interest would have paid off in more screen time for the minister. We have precious few scenes with this firebrand, given the length of the film, that allow us to enjoy Malkovich’s furious, yet measured, performance. Rev. Briegleb is clearly a model of the minister who preaches with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. He takes great lengths to expose the violence and corruption of the LAPD, a stance that no doubt threatened his own well being given the very violence against which he preaches.
Few actresses are as news-worthy as Jolie, yet she does not distract from the character that she plays here. She gives a performance that covers a range of emotions, or at least a wealth of ways to convey the horror of having lost her son. Unending praise must also go to the costume and makeup artists who transform Jolie into Christine Collins. These unsung heroes draw us further into the story that Eastwood has so richly crafted. Catch it before Sunday if you can.
Changeling (141 mins.) is available on DVD and is rated R for language and violent/disturbing content.