[Screen It]

(2008) (Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan) (R)

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Drama: A single mother in 1920s Los Angeles must contend with the police and others questioning her mental status when she claims the boy returned to her is not her missing 9-year-old son.
It's 1928 Los Angeles and Christine Collins (ANGELINA JOLIE) is a single mom and phone operator supervisor who's raising her 9-year-old son, Walter (GATTLIN GRIFFITH), by herself. After filling in for someone at work, she returns home in the evening to discover that her son is missing. Frantic, she calls the police who say they can't do anything until the boy has been missing for 24 hours.

Days and then months later, Walter is still missing, with Christine taking every break she gets from boss Ben Harris (FRANK WOOD) to call authorities around the country asking if they've come across anyone matching Walter's description.

Her plight has also drawn the attention of Rev. Gustav Briegleb (JOHN MALKOVICH) who routinely uses his radio broadcasts to blast the Los Angeles police department -- and specifically Chief James E. Davis (COLM FEORE) -- for its violent tactics, intimidation and general corruption, and sees their failure to find the boy as yet another example of their incompetence. Yet, the LAPD seems to get a positive PR spin on news that Walter has been found in another state and that Capt. J.J. Jones (JEFFREY DONOVAN) will be delivering him to Christine.

The only problem is that she knows deep in her heart that the boy (DEVON CONTI) isn't her son, despite Jones assuring her he is -- stating Walter has simply changed in appearance over the intervening months -- and the boy even knowing his home address. Even so, she's psychologically bullied into taking the boy home where Dr. Earl Tarr (PETER GERETY) -- working for the LAPD -- confirms that the boy is Walter despite having never met him before.

When Christine continues to complain, including publically with the help of Gustav, Jones -- fearing a public backlash -- has her committed to the psychopathic ward under the supervision of Dr. Jonathan Steele (DENIS O'HARE). There, she learns from fellow inmate Carol Dexter (AMY RYAN) that she's not alone in being hidden away by the cops and that no matter what she says, the staff will view her as mentally incompetent.

At the same time, Det. Lester Ybarra (MICHAEL KELLY), working the missing children beat, retrieves young teenager Sanford Clark (EDDIE ALDERSON) from a desert ranch and soon hears horrific tales about his guardian, Gordon Northcott (JASON BUTLER HARNER), a bloodthirsty child abductor. That revelation, coupled with Gustav enlisting the aide of powerful attorney S.S. Hahn (GEOFF PIERSON) to represent her plight, ends up providing Christine with both fear and hope regarding finding what's really happened to her son.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Save for the sort of people who are unfit to have their chromosomes enter the collective human gene pool, there's nothing gray about a parent's reaction to having their child go missing. Simply put, it's one of the worst things that can happen to them and in some ways it's even worse than the death of one's offspring due to the lack of any sort of certainty and closure.

For such people, fear and hope coexist on a daily basis, with spirits uplifted by potential only to be dashed by heartbreaking reality. It's an unimaginable scenario in today's world, but think of it happening to a single, middle-class mom in the late 1920s who's reunited with her missing 9-year-old son, only to discover that the city's corrupt and increasingly totalitarian police force has delivered the wrong boy, won't admit to its mistake, and will do everything in its power to avoid egg (and then some) on its face.

Such is the true story featured in director Clint Eastwood's latest pic, "Changeling" (that's possibly missing the preceding "the" to avoid confusion with being potentially seen as a remake of the terrific George C. Scott horror pic that, coincidentally, also dealt with a parent losing a child). Working from J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay based on the facts of the real case, the director has delivered a film about a parent's worst nightmare, as well as corruption, strong-armed government manipulation, and the treatment of the weak and defenseless, points that purposefully or not might have contemporary resonance with some viewers.

Yet, what's missing, and what prevents the film from being truly stellar and moving are those shades of gray. There's never a doubt about who's right and who's wrong as the story plays out over its 140-some minute runtime. While that might make it fairly easy for viewers to follow and know who to cheer for, it robs the film of much-needed depth and thus, dare I say, enough consistent emotional connectivity (beyond the default settings of feeling sorry for the protagonist) to make it register as strongly as it could and should have.

The story starts out simply enough, with Angelina Jolie (in a good if necessarily one-note and thus eventually somewhat redundant performance) starring as the mother whose young son (Gattlin Griffith) ends up missing without explanation or evidence. Her goal obviously is to find him ASAP, but she runs afoul of that corrupt police department that provides the necessary obstacles and setbacks to create the sort of drama needed to fuel the plot.

The problem is that the police -- personified by Jeffrey Donovan as the child services investigation head, Colm Feore as the police chief, and Peter Gerety as their coconspirator physician -- are so obviously bad, mean and uncaring that there's no ambiguity about their actions.

While that gives the audience someone concrete to root against -- which also holds true for the staff at a psychopathic ward headed by the condescending administrator played by Denis O'Hare -- it also lessens the dramatic impact (noted by audience members at our preview screening laughing at rather than being horrified by some of those characters' incredulous statements).

Since all of that stems from Jolie's character knowing -- along with the viewer -- that the delivered boy is not her son, the filmmakers could have remedied that by not showing as much of Walter before his disappearance. Coupled with less obvious and odious malfeasance on the part of said police and mental ward figures, that would have cast doubt in the mind of the viewer about the mother's claim, thus making the story and its protagonist more compelling. Although that might have inserted too much artistic license into the proceedings (not being remotely familiar with the real events, I can't say), some sort of blurring of the ultra black and white approach is clearly needed.

Speaking of non-vibrant color tone, Eastwood and his crew have believably recreated Los Angeles in its pre-Depression days and the film is technically proficient. With much of its focus on the corrupt LAPD, it will obviously draw story and visual comparisons to the likes of "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential," although it's obviously a notch or two below those similar period efforts.

What the film does have going for it is yet another strong performance by Jolie. While it draws on some of her previous work (being incarcerated in a mental ward in "Girl, Interrupted" and facing the prospect of losing a loved one as occurred in "A Mighty Heart"), the actress makes us believe in her emotional plight (although I'll understand if some see the heightened emotions as little more than Oscar-baiting histrionics).

John Malkovich is good playing the activist reverend, Eddie Alderson stands out as a young teen with a decidedly troubled past, and Amy Ryan delivers another strong performance as a fellow, wrongly incarcerated mental ward inmate. More over the top, but certainly memorable is Jason Butler Harner as a bloodthirsty child abductor, and while the scenes featuring him are obviously crucial to the overall plot, they slightly end up as distracting in that they somewhat shift the tone of the film into something different than we had been watching.

I guess the biggest issue regarding all of that -- at least for yours truly -- is that it cumulatively prevents the film from being as emotionally devastating as it could and should have been. Yes, we feel sorry for the mother and the multitude of horrors and injustices she faced, and we can easily boo and hiss all of the corrupt and just plain mean authority figures who enact much of that on her. But without getting wrapped up in the proceedings, it's too easy to see Eastwood pulling the strings, thus preventing "Changeling" from being one of his better, morally ambiguous works. Decent but not great, it rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 21, 2008 / Posted October 24, 2008

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