Toward the end of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, in what is perhaps the only lighthearted scene in this rigorously somber film, Christine Collins, the heroine, is invited by some of her phone company co-workers, and then by her boss, to go out on the town and listen to the Academy Awards radio broadcast. The year is 1935, and It Happened One Night is Christine’s pick for best picture, but it’s hard to avoid interpreting this moment as a none-too-subtle wink directed at present-day moviegoers and Academy voters. Christine begs off — she just has too much work — and it goes without saying that on Feb. 22, Angelina Jolie, who plays her, will have to make similar excuses. She won’t be watching the Oscars with the likes of us; we’ll be watching her.
That seems to be the plan behind Changeling, at any rate, an ambition telegraphed a shade too blatantly in the many close-ups of Jolie’s extraordinary face, which is by turns tear-streaked, stoical, crestfallen and howling. To watch her trace Christine’s harrowing emotional passage — a series of flights from anxiety to terror, from grief to rage, pausing occasionally at calm defiance or tremulous hope — is to witness an undeniable tour de force of screen acting. It insists on being regarded as a great performance and may, indeed, be mistaken for one.
In the past five years Eastwood has enabled more first-rate, laurel-worthy acting than just about any other American filmmaker. There was Ken Watanabe in Letters From Iwo Jima; Ryan Philippe in Flags of Our Fathers; Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman (and Eastwood himself) in Million Dollar Baby; everybody in Mystic River. All of these actors, taking advantage of the director’s famously efficient, low-stress approach, were able to stretch out in the zone between realism and melodrama, to explore their characters’ raw nerves, tender spots and psychic calluses.
Jolie, in contrast, hurtles through Changeling as if it were the latest installment in the Lara Croft action franchise, sustaining a pitch of intensity that turns Christine at once into a vivid icon of suffering and something of a blur. The character, as imagined in J. Michael Straczynski’s script, is as flat as a nickel. Each side is stamped with the likeness of a familiar movie archetype — victim of circumstance on one, crusader against injustice on the other — and Jolie composes her features and adjusts her voice accordingly when it comes time to flip.
But something essential is missing, not only from her performance but also from the film as a whole. Announcing itself at the outset as “a true story” without the usual “based on” or “inspired by” hedge, Changeling is by turns fascinating and frustrating, emphatic and opaque. The truth about the case of Christine Collins is so shocking and dramatic that embellishment must have seemed pointless, but in sticking so close to the historical record, Straczynski and Eastwood have produced a distended, awkward narrative whose strongest themes are lost in the murky pomp of period detail.
In March 1928, Christine, a single mother living in Los Angeles, returns home from her shift supervising a busy switchboard to find that her young son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), is missing. The initial response of the Los Angeles Police Department is casual and condescending, which turns out to be a chilly foretaste of worse treatment to follow. After a few months, with great fanfare and press coverage, the city’s hatchet-faced police chief (Colm Feore) stages a reunion between Christine and a boy who is evidently not Walter. When Christine points this out, she is treated first as a hysterical, traumatized woman and then as a lunatic and a threat to public order. She is ignored, smeared in the papers and then locked away in a mental hospital.