Changeling: True Crime from Clint and Angelina

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Tony Rivetti, Jr. / Universal Studios

Angelina Jolie stars in Clint Eastwood's Changeling, written by J. Michael Straczynski.

Hollywood royalty from different generations — Clint Eastwood, 78, as director-producer and Angelina Jolie, 33, as star — strike an agreeable but uneasy artistic entente in the period drama Changeling. When the movie had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this May, the two were instantly dubbed Clangelina, and they looked quite the handsome couple on the red carpet. But this bustling, complex picture is hobbled by something neither an Academy Award-winning director nor a seductive star can overcome: miscasting.

Changeling is an epic, fact-based story — depicting sadistic, systematic corruption in the municipal government, the police department and the medical establishment of 1920s Los Angeles — that has the novelty of being virtually unknown today. The script, by TV writer-producer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Jeremiah), juggles elements of L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, The Snake Pit and any number of serial-killer thrillers. But at its center are the heartache and heroic resolve of a woman who has lost the person she loves most and is determined to find him, dead or alive, against all obstacles the authorities place in her way. In that sense the movie is a companion piece to last year's A Mighty Heart, in which Jolie played the wife of kidnapped journalist Daniel Pearl — except that Changeling is far more sprawling and twisty.

Christine Collins (Jolie) works as a supervisor at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, where she patrols the operator bank on roller skates. She's a conscientious employee, but her life is devoted to her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whose father walked out when the child was born. One day Christine returns home to find Walter missing. As the days and months drag on, his disappearance becomes big news, and when word comes that the boy has been located, the press is there en masse at the train station. Instantly she sees that this "Walter" (Devon Conti) is not her son; but the police insist that he's Walter — case closed.

The officer in charge, Capt. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), dismisses Christine's evidence of differences between the two boys: this one is a few inches shorter, his dental records don't match Walter's, his teacher doesn't recognize him... and he's been circumcised! When Christine presses her objections, Jones has her confined to the psychopathic ward of the Los Angeles Hospital, in the company of other women with the potential to embarrass the cops. ("If we're insane," says Amy Ryan as a prostitute subjected to electroshock therapy for her outspokenness, "nobody has to listen to us.") Her only ally is a preacher and radio crusader, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who sees Christine's case as another heinous example of the police department's venality.

Meanwhile, a vagrant boy (Eddie Alderson, the best of a very strong bunch of child actors here) directs a police detective to a chicken ranch in Wineville, about 40 miles west of L.A. There, a Canadian named Gordon Northcott (nicely played by Jason Butler Harner as a man who tries to hide his darkest impulses under the aw-shucks amiability of a Gary Cooper rube) has committed atrocities on some 20 kidnapped boys. Are these crimes related to Walter's disappearance? And if so, will the cops bring the matter into the glare of publicity, or suppress the awful information?

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