As a director, Clint Eastwood is pretty dependable. His directing style is elegantly understated and unobtrusive. Eastwood has shown a partiality for thematically interesting, morally ambiguous movies that revolve around characters rather than action and special effects. His movies also tend to be Oscar bait -- in the last five years he's directed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, all of them justifiably heaped with praise and awards. Changeling, on the other hand, tends toward Oscar-baiting, with loud, emotional, explosive performances and larger-than-life (though based on a true story) melodrama. There's a plodding deliberateness to Changeling, in the way it moves through the plot, in the odd way that the period costumes and sets are so noticeable, and in Eastwood's surprisingly obtrusive musical score.
There are really two movies here, and the transition from one to the other is handled a bit clumsily. In March 1928, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother in Los Angeles, comes home from her job as a telephone operator to find her 9 year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) missing. Anxiety turns to desperation when the police tell her that, as a matter of policy, they don't investigate missing children until they've been gone for 24 hours. Five months later, her son is finally returned to her, from Illinois, to great fanfare and publicity. A corrupt police department under attack for abusing its power has the chance to look heroic. Only the boy returned to Christine isn't her son, or so she says.
Police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) is condescending, unsympathetic, and unbelieving. He treats Christine at first as an hysterical woman, and when her insistence that the boy is not her son becomes dangerously inconvenient for Jones, he smears her in the press and has her tossed into a snake pit of a mental hospital, where she finds other inconvenient women (among them Amy Ryan, playing one of those heart-of-gold hookers) have been sequestered, tranquilized (and worse) as well. Everywhere she turns, Christine is at the mercy of arrogant, sadistic, and self-serving authorities -- police, doctors, psychiatrists -- who all insist, with a cruel authoritarianism, that they are necessarily right because they simply can't be wrong. Her sole ally is a crusading Presbyterian minister named Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who enlists a high-powered attorney (Geoff Pierson) to her cause.
What happens to Christine is outrageous and dramatic, and the film catalogs her bureaucratic nightmare with an accumulating sense of horror. By the time she's tossed into the insane asylum, with its sinister, hatchet-faced nurses and doctors, and its howling, mad-eyed inmates, the figurative horror movie becomes a literal horror movie. And then it turns even more obviously in that direction with the story of what might have really happened to Walter. That part of the tale comes to light when the only honest cop in the LAPD, Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), investigates the case of a runaway Canadian boy and discovers an isolated chicken farm where very bad things have happened. And Changeling starts to unravel at this point, about two-thirds into the film, moving clunkily and without focus from one scene to the next as it tries to get all the historical pieces to fit together, and to merge the story of a sinister, violent, morally bankrupt police department and the story of a whingeing, psychopathic killer. It is, in fact, an astonishing story, but what makes it thus in reality -- including the far-reaching implications of Christine's ongoing fight for truth, justice, and the American way -- also makes it unwieldy as a movie.
The emotional tone of Changeling, coupled with the overacting by almost everyone involved, strains credulity. Jolie's role requires her to howl and cry and throw things, to experience grief and terror and rage, but also to appear thoroughly rational and certain of her own certainty. This is a tall order, of course, and requires much shifting of emotional gears for the actress, which creates the appearance of really strenuous (and maybe good) acting, although it feels more like an exercise in emotional range. Christine flips from crusader to suffering mother and back again (and again), but the script by journalist J. Michael Straczynski doesn't provide a center -- there's no filling to this character sandwich, which leaves Jolie to supply the ham, so to speak. The lack of nuance and depth in Christine's character and the exaggerated melodramatic mood of Changeling requires much bluster and excess on the part of the other actors, notably Donovan, who does a lot of fist-pounding and finger-pointing and yelling. This is surprising because it is unlike the even-keeled Eastwood -- he typically brings an unstrenuous naturalism and realism to his movies that tends to guard against dramatic excess, even when the story is itself wrenching (as it often is). It's also surprising because there is a really compelling story of evil and justice at the heart of Changeling, in the tale of the aggrieved and grieving mother and the lost son. There's potential here too for an ambiguous and devastating mystery story, and for a while, it almost looked like Changeling (as the title suggests) might be a weird and interesting tale of uncertainty and identity, although the movie dismisses that possibility pretty quickly. In the end, Changeling feels familiar and clumsily predictable, and worst of all, it becomes a true story that just doesn't ring true.