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November 6, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
When he received the Silversword Award from the Maui Film Festival at Wailea in 2002, I had the privilege of doing a quick interview with Clint Eastwood.
His exact words have faded, but the gist of what he said stayed with me.
Although the iconic filmmaker had accomplished everything there was to accomplish in his chosen field, he wasn’t done yet. He still wanted to try out some new ways of telling stories, he said.
“What can they to do to me?” he asked with a grin.
With Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for “Unforgiven” already under his belt, and “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” yet to come, the 72-year-old artist was at the top of his game. But like an eternal Zen beginner, he sounded more like someone just starting out.
Angelina Jolie says something similar in Eastwood’s latest movie, “Changeling.” But she’s coming from the opposite end of things.
As Christine Collins in this true story set in Los Angeles in the ’20s, Jolie speaks the line after being unjustly incarcerated in a mental ward where a stratjacket and electroshock treatment await her.
What else can they do to her? is what she means. But with nothing left to lose, Christine Collins decides she’s not going to let them have her spirit, too.
Beautifully filmed, accompanied by a gentle, Eastwood-composed musical score, “Changeling” hasn’t won the usual critical praise the director has become accustomed to with his recent releases.
I don’t know why not. Maybe it’s because critics mistakenly think “Changeling” is a drama. They don’t realize that its connection to its era goes deeper than its red streetcars, its perfectly rendered LA city streets, its Edward Hopper-inspired cinematography.
“Changeling” isn’t drama, but melodrama. It’s a theatrical category we don’t know how to take seriously any more, wearing its heart on its sleeve as it races into over-the-top plot twists and emotions better suited for the grand opera stage. And it doesn’t end where we expect it to, with the third act, but instead adds a fourth, and then a fifth.
Other critics may not be susceptible, but it works for me. Jolie’s spellbinding close-ups and the powerful arc of her performance are well served by Eastwood’s unadorned way of telling her story. The director has described it as a horror movie for grown-ups, but it’s also, ultimately, a testament to faith.
Single mother Collins begins the movie riding the trolley to work. On the job she wears roller skates and a headset supervising rows of operators at their switchboards at the telephone company.
The LA she lives in has clean air, a slower pace, tree-lined streets of unassuming houses and a police force corrupt to the core.
No matter; those aren’t the sorts of things simple folks worry about.
Abandoned by her husband long ago, the love of Christine’s life is her 9-year-old son, Walter. He’s a smart, well-behaved kid … who mysteriously disappears from home one day.
The LAPD’s slowness to respond to her call — department policy says to wait 24 hours — adds to her growing panic. But that turns out to be only the beginning of her nightmare, especially after a six-month ordeal of searching when the cops return her “son.”
“He’s not my son.” You’ve heard that part on the TV commercials. But her unintended transformation from distraught mother to a problem that won’t go away for the LAPD propels the film forward.
From an era when men with press cards in their hatbands created the news, accompanied by the popping sounds of flashbulbs, this “true story” feels beyond the imagination of a B-movie writer.
Sometimes “Changeling” is reminiscent of Warren Beatty’s primary-colored “Dick Tracy.” Other times it echoes Jack Nicholson, lost in the maze of corruption of LA’s “Chinatown.” John Malkovich’s radio preacher who gets involved in the Collins case is eccentric enough to have wandered in from the LA of “There Will Be Blood.”
The film’s title refers to the boy who is delivered to Christine Collins, accompanied by advice from police, doctors and shrinks to take him in and shut up about it. But by the film’s end, the title has an altogether different connotation.
Christine Collins is the one who has changed, never giving up hope in the search for her son, but finding herself instead.
Behind her transformation are all the changes Clint Eastwood has gone through in his career, evolving from laconic action hero to enlightened master, a veritable Yoda of modern Hollywood.
And behind all that are all of us watching, going through our own changes and rekindling our hopes this week, after a long time of searching.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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