Working from a fascinating true story, director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (yes, the creator of “Babylon 5”) start out with an interesting thriller-melodrama that drags its story out a full half-hour or so past its emotional climax. Rather than run one of those crawls that explains the rest of the story, Eastwood and Straczynski tell you every last detail, thus minimizing whatever power the movie ever had.
Angelina Jolie stars as Christine Collins, a single mother in Depression-era Los Angeles who works as a supervisor at the telephone company to make ends meet for her son Walter. She’s called into work one Saturday, and upon returning home, Walter is gone. The police refuse to fill out a missing-persons report until the child is gone for 24 hours (nobody knew what an Amber Alert was back then), and as time passes, Christine is dogged in her pursuit of the child, even though the crooked and power-hungry LAPD of the era isn’t much help.
Christine’s plight comes to the attention of Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who hosts a popular weekly radio broadcast. He urges his listeners to pray for Walter’s safe return when he isn’t excoriating the brutality and corruption of the police department.
Hoping to score a PR coup, the cops reunite Christine with Walter — only the boy they deliver to her isn’t him. She suspects this immediately, but Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) assures her that the child looks different because he’s been starving. When Christine realizes the boy she’s been given is shorter than Walter — and hasn’t been circumcised — she knows they’re trying to pull a fast one on her, but the cops produce a doctor who insists that it’s the same child and that Christine is hysterical.
Once her battle with the police reaches a boiling point, they put her in a mental institution to shut her up and there she discovers many women who’ve been locked up in the snake pit for the sole crime of being a nuisance to someone on the police force.
Even though “Changeling” doesn’t climb far above the usual woman-in-peril storyline, it does a terrific job of creating a nightmare scenario where you know the truth but no one will listen to you. The many scenes in which Christine is patronized and eventually brutalized by men in power is a devastating reminder of how much worse life was for women in America’s not-so-distant past.
With the help of Rev. Briegleb, Christine proves her sanity and goes after the LAPD for all that they’ve done to her. But just when you think the movie’s going to be over, we get hearings. And a trial. And then the passage of time and another event related to the disappearance of Christine’s son. And then a jailhouse visit. And then…
Audiences will be forgiven for reaching for their coats and then putting them down again over and over; everytime you think this tune is done, there’s another 38 bottles of beer on the wall. Part of the skill of telling a true story is knowing what parts to leave out, but Straczynski and Eastwood apparently figured we’d all find every last jot and tittle of this tale as fascinating as they did.
There’s a lot that works in “Changeling,” from Jolie’s forceful (albeit award-hungry) performance to the accurate period detail, but all the cloche hats in the world can’t overcome the film’s frustrating lack of focus.