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Mother courage

Angelina Jolie goes on a tear in Changeling
By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 5, 2008
2.0 2.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Changeling

Changeling | Directed by Clint Eastwood | Written by J. Michael Straczynski | with Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Colm Feore, Jason Butler Harner, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Amy Ryan, and Geoff Pierson | Universal Pictures | 141 minutes
How many ways can Angelina Jolie cry? With growing panic and incredulity as her character, Christine Collins, discovers that her son Walter is missing. With terror turning into relief as Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) of the LAPD arrives to tell her that Walter is alive. And that’s just the beginning: as Changeling rolls on and on, Jolie cries with steely rage and frustration, with desperation and resolve, with vulnerability and tenderness, with happiness tinged with melancholy . . . In short, she gives those tear ducts a workout to punctuate every twist and turn in Clint Eastwood’s convoluted but oddly inert true-life tale of injustice, evil, and the irresistible force of a mother’s love. Not to mention providing lots of material for her Oscar highlights reel.

Somewhere in between these close-ups unfolds a fascinating narrative, but relayed with Eastwood’s typical minimalist style it barely competes with the star’s histrionics. A single mother whose husband has skipped town, Christine works in a managerial position with the phone company, a rarity in 1928. (She supervises the switchboard, a job that allows Eastwood to indulge in the surreal image of her gliding on roller skates to cover her post.) She’s a tough cookie who teaches her son the importance of responsibility and not backing down, but she finds these virtues hard to sort out when she’s asked to fill in for a co-worker on the day she’d promised to take Walter to the movies. Sure enough, when she returns home, the boy is gone.

Meanwhile, the LAPD is having its own problems. Radio evangelist Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) has spurred on a public outcry against the force’s corruption and brutality. (They’re like the guys in Magnum Force, except their vigilantism is for the purposes of extortion rather than law and order.) Solving the Collins kidnapping would get them some positive PR. So they reunite mother and child with a big press turnout, and when Christine insists that the boy isn’t her son, they strong-arm her and tell her to take the kid back “on a trial basis.” Her doubts only increase when she discovers that the new Walter is not only three inches shorter but (shades of Europa Europa) circumcised.

Comparisons between this absurd insistence on fiction as fact by the cops in Changeling and that of the present administration on illusory weapons of mass destruction may be coincidental. Likewise, regarding Eastwood as a feminist and his film as a critique of patriarchal power might be an exaggeration, especially since the story veers into a serial-killer hunt (with Jason Butler Harner’s performance as perhaps the best thing in the movie) climaxing with not one but two simultaneous courtroom sequences. And believe me, Jolie tears into them both.

No, as Christine has to be rescued repeatedly by a male authority figure like Reverend Briegleb or a high profile pro-bono lawyer or an honest cop and her heroism consists of crying repeatedly and photogenically for her baby, this seems less and less like an independent-female role. Contrast that with the brief cameo by Amy Ryan as a feisty prostitute falsely thrown into a Cuckoo’s Nest–like mental hospital. She has a hell of a right cross — maybe if she’d played Christine Collins, this would have been the kind of movie Clint Eastwood used to make.

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