Sunday, November 02, 2008

"Changeling": Clint Eastwood makes us ponder official corruption in a 20s period piece

Clint Eastwood has once again given us a probing film in wide-screen with a lot of sepia tones, probing moral problems in slow motion with novel dramatic situations.

This time it’s a period piece, set in Los Angeles in the late 1920s; one wonders how built-up “the City of Angels” really was then. Well, that’s a point of this play-like crime drama, “Changeling” (written by J. Michael Straczynski): the LAPD decided that it was above the law then, so it had to be big enough for all this institutionalism.

Angelina Jolie plays the single mom heroine, Christine Collins, a telephone company supervisor (party lines are her specialty) who moves around the phone banks on roller skates. It seems a little careless to leave her nine year old boy home alone, and one day when she comes back he’s gone, his sandwich uneaten. The cops don’t take her seriously, and then a few months later a boy is returned to her whom she claims is not her son.

What follows seems surreal, as the cops try to manipulate all the “facts” and all her statements into protecting themselves from the press. It’s interesting that, in this movie set 70 years before the Internet, the LAPD so dreads reporters. It becomes a whole world, a whole culture. The cops can even have her committed, and the mental hospital scenes are among the most harrowing in the movie. I had a sequence in my life like that myself in a mental ward at NIH in 1962, maybe not quite as graphic as this, but with some underlying corrupt processes at work. My story is tougher to sell because I'm not the obvious hero(ine) that Jolie's character is. (To underscore the corruption, Colm Feore plays the police chief, and he seems like he comes right out of Stephen King (remember “Storm of the Century”? -- You give him what he wants, but he doesn't go away.) Then a subplot moves in, about a serial pedophile killer kidnapping boys and taking them to a desert ranch, with horrible ends. An activist minister, Gustav Briegleb, takes up Christine’s cause, with nightly radio broadcasts and summoning legal help.

The movie has a sequence of several different courtroom events, intermixed, and that’s a little confusing at first. Then it leads to a death penalty sequence that calls to mind an episode of “The Decalogue” by Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Universal used an old crystal ball trademark as the curtain opened, rather than its usual Wagnerian fanfare, almost suggesting that what follows will be like a 40s film noir. It’s not exactly that. It is more like a dissection. And the film is a bit of a warning: those who are in charge will not tolerate “ordinary people” overstepping their bounds. That seems to be getting to be a more serious problem again today.

Universal is staging this release, slowing adding more theaters each week to build an audience for this tough film. I saw it in a National Amusements auditorium in Merrifield, VA, with maybe 60 people present on a Sunday afternoon, not a big crowd.

The film has nothing to do with a horror film “The Changeling” from Peter Medak in 1980.

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