An elegant but tragic example of how a film can be beautifully acted and gorgeously photographed yet still fall victim to a fundamentally flawed screenplay, Clint Eastwood's Changeling has everything going for it as the riveting story builds steam, only to falter at the precise point that it should be winding down to a satisfying conclusion. By the time the long-awaited coda does come, the audience's patience (and trust) has been eroded, and the one scene that could have had the most emotional impact of all is rendered hopelessly ineffective.
It's easy to see why a filmmaker of Eastwood's caliber would be drawn to a story like the one that inspired Changeling, because the way in which the elements all come together seems almost too preposterous to be true. March 1928: Single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returns home from work to discover that her nine-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), is nowhere to be found. After being forced to wait 24 hours to file a police report (a necessary "technicality" given the number of young children who simply run off with friends for a day), Christine embarks on a torturous quest over the coming weeks, dedicating her every waking moment to finding her missing son, supposedly with the help of the police. A few months later, LAPD captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) appears to deliver some astounding news -- Christine's son has been found, and he'll be arriving home shortly to be reunited with his mother. In most stories, this is where the nightmare ends; in Christine's, it's only the beginning. Immediately upon seeing her "son," she realizes that the police have made a terrible mistake. Not only is it a mistake that they're not willing to own up to, but one that the boy who claims to be her son is inexplicably playing along with wholeheartedly (even to the chilling point where he calls her "Mommy" behind closed doors). Though everyone in the city, including the outspoken Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), is well aware of the deep-rooted corruption within the LAPD, few would have suspected the reprehensible lengths to which they would go in order to cover up the truth and cling to power. When a young Canadian boy is discovered residing illegally on a nearby ranch, his capture sets into motion a remarkable series of events that will expose the deeply corrupt system for what it truly is, while finally setting the wheels of justice into motion.
Considering the story's many intriguing nuances, it's a small miracle that the screenplay doesn't get bogged down earlier than it actually does. Thanks to Eastwood's assured use of cinematic shorthand and some skillful editing by regular editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, the first two hours of Changeling move along at a satisfying, deliberate pace that truly draws the viewer in. We feel the mother's anguish of knowing that her child could be out there waiting to be found, and share her helplessness when she falls victim to a venal legal system that's more interested in cornering the market on crime than helping the unfortunate victims.
As such a victim, Jolie quietly conveys the unfathomable pain of a mother who has lost her only son, often with little more than a wounded, glassy-eyed glance and a meek response to the intimidating powers that be. Watching her character evolve from a frightened and confused victim of the machine to a figure that inspires a fundamental change in the justice system is central to the success of the film, and helps to keep things interesting even after the action grinds to a halt in the interminable final act. Likewise, a pious Malkovich gives the crowd a character to cheer for just as the screenplay starts to meander, and -- in his role as suspicious ranch owner Gordon Northcott -- a giggling Jason Butler Harner accepts the full blunt of the audience's disdain with scenery-chewing abandon. Yet, while Harner's nervous energy serves well to set some darker elements of the plot into motion at the midway mark, his unhinged performance doesn't benefit from extended screen time, and feels slightly out of place as the audience begins to understand the true nature of his character. Unfortunately, in the end, not even an Oscar-caliber crew on both sides of the camera can cover for the fact that the screenplay for Changeling simply flounders in the final act. Perhaps with a few more drafts, the filmmakers could have found a means of maintaining the quiet momentum displayed early on, but as it stands, Changeling is little more than a frustrating missed opportunity that's dressed to the nines, but a day late for the party.