Clint Eastwood, at 79 (yes, you read that right), continues to create films that garner plaudits such as “gutsy and virile,” “seething with power,” and “frighteningly potent.”
Having checked some of the reviews of Eastwood films from the past decade in the U.S. media, it seems critics hold his works on a par with say, a hulking motorcycle or a majestic tiger — something with fire in its belly or a lot of muscle and sinewy tendons (in fact, like Eastwood himself). It’s impossible to imagine Eastwood making some softly lit, twilighty kind of love story crammed with life lessons. He’d probably shoot himself in the foot first.
“Changeling” is his latest, and whatever else you may want to say about it, there’s no denying that the film seethes with power and has a potency equivalent of an intravenous vitamin shot. Based on a real-life incident that happened in 1920s Los Angeles, “Changeling” traces the story of a single mother on a desperate quest to find her missing child.
One afternoon in May 1928, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) comes home from work to discover that her 9-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), is nowhere to be found. She calls the local precinct and is promptly told by a smarmy, condescending male voice that children must be missing for more than 24 hours before the police can start an investigation. The 24 hours turn into weeks and then months, and still no Walter. Christine launches a nationwide media campaign to recover her son and the LAPD (already under fire from the press for its history of corruption and scandal) is put in the embarrassing position of professing to support Christine, but being unable to produce any results.
And then, a miracle. The police find Walter in Illinois and Christine is told to be at a mother-son reunion at the local train station, complete with press coverage. She is reluctant to be meeting her boy in front of a lot of reporters, but pressured by the police and subtly reminded of what she owes to their terrific efforts, Christine succumbs. Walter steps off the train, she moves forward and sees that Walter isn’t Walter, but a completely different boy who’s shorter than her son, is later not recognized by his classmates, and whose dental records don’t match. But at the station and under the glare of the camera lights, Christine’s protests are brushed aside. Her confusion is attributed to “temporary shock” and she’s bullied (by LAPD detectives) into taking the boy.
What happens to Christine after that is often too painful to witness, just as Eastwood intends.
This director has always been into pain — the real, agonizing, bone-crunching kind that has plagued his other characters from “Unforgiven” to “Letters From Iwo Jima.” But here the predecessor that springs to mind is Hilary Swank’s Maggie in “Million Dollar Baby” — she and Christine share the same, amazingly high, threshold of endurance, taking every punch straight in the ribs or smack on the jaw and still coming up, gasping for air but with fists raised in position.
Eastwood went easier on the boxer (granted that he was also playing her coach) than on Christine: Maggie got some breaks, but Christine is hurled into a horrific spiral of lies and coverups. She protests to the police that the boy is not her son and because her voice was a tiny bit loud, is sent to a correctional institution where the prescribed remedies are electric shock treatments and enforced medication. Although Christine does find herself in good company — the other women inmates are there because they, too, had at one point ticked off a male police officer.
Eastwood is ruthless and meticulous. He dots every single “i” in drawing ghoulish cops whose hides are so thick they’ll fob a different child off on a distraught mother and expect her to be grateful. Christine’s mental-institution ordeal is grotesquely emphasized, the stuff of B-movie horror (strapped onto an operating table with a helmet clamped on her head) minus the cheap titillation. And he’s also insistent upon setting up camps and boundaries: Christine as the vulnerable, emotional mother with no organizational backup to support her cause (except a radio preacher played excellently by John Malkovich) vs. the big bad LAPD, who protect each other and their reputation through a staunch, male network system that can, with a single captain’s signature, send a woman into an asylum.
In the end, “Changeling” ceases to be about a boy; it’s an indictment of a system in an age (a year before the Great Depression) that allowed and even nurtured such brutishness. True to Eastwood’s style, that rage is frosty and restrained, beaming across the frames like a lighthouse warning, from the depths of that granite stare.