Changeling is Clint Eastwood's 28th feature film. He is the director of such diverse fare as Play Misty for Me, Unforgiven, and Space Cowboys. His work shows an incredible track record which is at once uneven at the same time that it is prestigious. For every Million Dollar Baby there's a Honkytonk Man or a Breezy lurking around in the celluloid shadows of his lifetime achievement. It may just be the reason why we think of Clint Eastwood first as an actor. His work in front of the camera arguably casts a longer shadow, and might just be superior to his efforts as director.
Changeling, which premiered this weekend at the New York Film Festival, is one of Eastwood's greatest films. Based on a true story, the period piece (the narrative starts in the late 1920s) stars Angelina Jolie as a single working mom who comes home one day to find that her son has been kidnapped. Set in Los Angeles at the time when its police department was facing charges of corruption, the film narrates the "Film Noir" ordeal that Jolie's character undergoes in her search for the truth about her child's whereabouts in a labyrinthine urban maze. Ms. Jolie's character works for the telephone company, although ironically for most of the story she is never in communication with the true facts of what really happened to her son.
Changeling will remind you of some recent noirish films. The corruption, the period costumes, the cars, and the sets will bring to mind Roman Polanski's Chinatown. Eastwood's film even begins in black & white, with Universal's old 1930s logo stretched to fit the film's widescreen academic ratio. The music of this film (for which Clint Eastwood takes a credit) is also vaguely reminiscent of Chinatown's cool Jerry Goldsmith jazz score. While watching Changeling this weekend, I was also reminded of LA Confidential, Curtis Hanson's fine film that exposes the underbelly of LA's police department.
The film has Oscar written all over it. Mr. Eastwood, who took over the project when director Ron Howard abandoned it, is sure to earn a well-earned nomination, and so will Ms. Jolie. Her heart wrenching portrayal of a mother whose only wish in life is to be reunited with her son is nothing short of brilliant. For years paparazzi have reminded us that Ms. Jolie knows something about children, and we as an audience react to this and readily accept her in this mom role. She also gets to downplay her glamorous looks and hide her famous tattoos as she dons tweeds and hats, and morphs into the perfect late 1920s housewife. Her incredible lips, painted beautifully ruby red, however, are the only hint that this is one of the most glamorous stars of our time. She can't hide those lips, and Eastwood's cinematographer, Tom Stern doesn't want to, as he photographs her in such a way that we can't help but be fascinated by the contours of her mouth.
Working from a tightly-written script by the ubiquitous J. Michael Straczynski, Eastwood tells his tale in a leisurely manner, at times punctuated by powerful, gripping scenes which have the power of hammer blows. Eastwood excels in this type of story structure, and this kind of script is tailor-made for his talents.
Given the title of this movie and Clint Eastwood's erratic artistic output, the question that rises in our minds is "will the real Clint Eastwood please stand up?" However, I can assure you that this time the real thing has appeared. Changeling might just be his best film, and it is one of the strong early contenders for this year's Academy Awards race.