Monday, November 3, 2008
More Of The Same: Changeling
In 1928, a single mother returns from work to find that her 9-year-old son is gone from their California home. Vanished without a trace. The mother, Christine Collins, contacts the Los Angeles Police Department, which uncovers no clues related to the boy’s disappearance for months, until incredibly the boy is reported found in Illinois. As quickly as this news spreads, the L.A. press assembles at the train station to witness the mother and child reunion. The LAPD shows up too, eager for some positive publicity. But when the boy steps off the train, Christine takes one look at him and says disappointedly but confidently, “That’s not my son.” And it isn’t. Of course it isn’t. A mother would know.
I have just described for you the first 30 or so minutes of Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood, and so in theory I have given nothing significant away. Per J Michael Straczynski’s screenplay, inspired by real-life events, the above summary isn’t a story itself but the launching point of one – the seed of something larger. Only that seed never blooms. Of course it doesn’t. Because in its opening act, Changeling is as dramatic and as heart-wrenching as it ever will be. A mother loses her child. He is never found again. And next to this, the rest is just distraction, obstacles between us and the obvious. Sure, Christine will be put through a physical and emotional hell. And clues explaining why and how her son disappeared will be unearthed. And there will be a few surprises. But in the end we will end up in the exact same place. And we’ll know this. But how about the people behind the movie?
Changeling is a quasi-mystery that makes the mistake of supposing that “can” and “when” are equally dramatic concepts. They aren’t. Compelling films work with “can.” Can the boxer win the fight? Can the astronauts make it home? Can the man make it off the island? Even if convention (Rocky), history (Apollo 13) or a film’s trailers (Cast Away) hint at the answers to such questions, a successful screenplay creates doubt. Changeling eliminates it. After the mystery boy arrives on the train, an image-conscious LAPD captain attempts to convince a flustered Christine that the child is in fact her son. But she doesn’t believe it. And we don’t believe it. And we don’t believe that the police captain believes it. And even if we tried to believe as much, that mystery is quashed only minutes later when Christine discovers that the boy posing as her son is 3 inches too short. Case closed. From here Changeling isn’t about “can” (Can Christine prove the stranger isn’t her son?), and so it becomes a film about “when,” as in: “When will everyone else realize what is overwhelmingly obvious?”
Watching it unfold is excruciating. Christine is played by Angelina Jolie, who mutes any Lara Croft sexuality behind blank, pained or confused expressions while Straczynski’s screenplay gives her character the Green Eggs and Ham treatment: Christine’s denials are the same, only her location changes. She insists that the boy isn’t Walter as soon as he steps off the train and she does so again later from the hospital for the criminally insane. She says he isn’t Walter when she talks to a preacher, and she says he isn’t Walter when she talks to her son’s teacher. She says he isn’t Walter when she’s in a courtroom witness chair. She says he isn’t Walter when she’s sitting anywhere! Meantime, an LAPD police captain played by Jeffrey Donovan responds with longwinded versions of “Is too!” so many times that I began to suspect that eventually he’d plug his ears, close his eyes and shout, “La-la-la-la-la…” whenever Christine arrived with new evidence.
Put together, these make for two one-dimensional performances in a film that plays the same note over and over again until the string snaps. About halfway through, Changeling tries to shift its dramatic tension onto the shoulders of another little boy, Sanford (Eddie Alderson), a runaway who has knowledge about poor Walter’s fate. Yet while Alderson’s performance connects, thanks in large part to a tremendous example of good listening by Michael Kelly as Detective Ybarra, this side plot does little more than fascinate us with its horrific historical factoids. Forgotten in the process, as if to underline its monotony, is Christine’s going-nowhere emotional journey. Eventually, after Changeling has gone a good 45 minutes longer than is necessary, Straczynski attempts to tie these threads together in dramatic harmony, but the link seems forced and historically dubious. And by then it’s too late anyway.
Even as it’s unfolding it’s clear that Changeling’s last hour is made up of stuff that in a better film would be left to the textual epilogue. For example: Why did we need to see the courtroom scene in which the already established was repeated one time more? And why did we need to see the arrest of Gordon Northcott, or his conviction, or his execution? Even if the latter was essential, did we really need to watch a shackled Northcutt shuffle down one staircase before shuffling up another to the gallows? The execution scenes of In Cold Blood and Capote move with greater haste, and in those pictures the emotions of the convicted are at the heart of the matter. Here? Not so much. As Northcott, Jason Butler Harner gives a performance so large that it suggests significance, but in truth the role is noting more than filler. Northcott sticks around long enough that Christine can visit him at San Quentin, allowing Straczynski to check off one more detail from the Wikipedia entry. It’s that kind of movie.
In its final act, Changeling goes out of its way to present Christine as a champion of motherhood and women’s rights in an era where women could be sent to a mental institution if the LAPD deemed them an inconvenience. But by making the LAPD into the villain, Stracyznski’s screenplay misses the point. Equally at fault was the general culture of the times, wherein Christine would ever feel pressured to take the imposter child home in the first place. Try as the film might to suggest otherwise, in actuality Christine is rescued by men as often as she is wronged by them. In the end, her acts of supposed heroism are refusing to pretend that a stranger is her son and refusing to plead insanity. It’s a pretty low bar. And for each scene in which Jolie screams, cries or snarls, there’s another in which Christine is allowed to do no more than sit there and look pretty like a good woman of the early 1930s.
And that she does. Christine is character we see a lot of without ever seeing into. This much is proven near the end of Changeling, when we find Christine listening to a radio broadcast of the Academy Awards, prancing about with glee over the thought of It Happened One Night upsetting Cleopatra for Best Picture. True enough, in the film’s opening scene Christine promises to take Walter to the movies, thus establishing her cinema-going habit. But glee isn’t something Christine had revealed to this point, and the final few minutes of the film isn’t the time to introduce a new facet to her limited personality. As Changeling ends with Eastwood’s own piano score and the clang of a streetcar in the distance, Christine walks off in classic movie-star fashion, with her head held high. It’s a triumphant conclusion, to be sure. And it renders Christine as foreign to us as that strange little boy who got off the train from Illinois.