I recently went to see Changeling with some friends. I wasn’t very enthusiastic b/c I am not a Clint Eastwood fan and I prefer actual history to cinematic versions of history. Having seen the previews of this film, I was also afraid that Eastwood’s directing had encouraged a screeching version of Jolie that was more soap opera than dramatic tragedy. While the later did occasionally occur, the film was surprisingly interesting.
Christine Collins (Jolie) is a single working mother who is called to work on a Saturday. Since she has no child care and no way of saying no, she leaves her young son by himself with neighbors instructed to check in on him. While she is away, her son goes missing. The police, fearing more bad PR for all their corruption and seeming incompetence, stage a photo op in which Collins is given the wrong child. Despite recognizing he is not hers, the police convince her to take him home and from there they slowly unravel her life to cover up the lie. It is only after the discovery of another child, with a terrible secret, that Collins is vindicated. Sadly, she is never reunited with her son.
The film has some surprising feminist moments. These moments lie in the subtleties of the film that are missing from the previews. First and foremost is that Jolie is the best employee at the telephone company where she works, however gender and class combine to make it impossible for her to refuse to work on her day off. Worse, Jolie’s class and lack of marriage means that she has to ride the bus to and from work, rather than be picked up by a husband. And since there is no husband, her boss feels free to prevent from catching that last bus to both promote her and ask her out. Both of these gendered inequalities, mean that Collins’ child is left alone well into the evening and police have no clue as to when he went missing.
These moments are not only interesting for the discussions they could open up about gender and work and gender and class, but also because they are some of the best acted scenes in the film. Jolie’s work is never more solid then when she is zipping in her roller skates across the telephone teller floor.
One could also read the inequalities above as blame. After all, if Collins was a “good woman,” she would be married, her husband would work, and she could have staid at home with her child preventing his going missing. However the film is clearly on Collins’ side, depicting her as a strong woman who takes on the police no matter what. The issue of “good woman” and womanhood in general at are the core of police attempts to discredit her. First they claim she has an “overly emotional” addled “woman’s brain” and when that does not work they imply that she feels guilty because she was “having a tryst” while her child was alone. Whether victim of her unhinged womb or slut, proven by the fact she has child but no husband, Collins is easy pickings for the establishment.
The tension gender inequity brings to this film is unfortunately ratcheted up to near soap opera level by Eastwood’s directing style. Thus it veers from plot, ie what happened to Collin’s son, to make a feministesque point about the mental health industry and the connection between it and police corruption. The film shows us multiple scenes of women incarcerated in a hospital for standing up to abusive husbands, telling abusive Johns that hitting is not ok, and daring to question the male authority of the police. Collins is saved from electro shock by one such woman, in contrived scene that will ring true with the simplistic desire to see women triumph in even the worst circumstances but not with anyone who can anticipate what happens next … Collins’ savior gets electro shocked in her stead. Never fear, she’s perfectly fine moments later … While the real Collins was in fact sent to a similar mental facility to shut her up, it seems that this point in the film is a story unto itself, one that deserves its own movie. And tho it is an interesting and compelling detour, it wraps up far too easily, is handled far too simply, and all of the characters and ideas introduced quickly disappear as we return to the story of Collins’ lost son.
Capt. Jones (Donovan) her main tormentor for the first half of the film, and target of a completely unexplored protest by an odd Reverend and radio host (Malkovich), disappears entirely at a moment when the career he has fought to save for the last hour is on its shakiest ground. As the film’s narrative shifts from the corrupt police vs. the single mother to the predator lurking in the alleyways, Jolie would also fade completely away if it wasn’t for her constant screechy delivery of her lines. This moment in the movie was the ideal time to show the overarching problems with the police, draw connections to how their corruption was putting women’s and children’s lives in danger, and further drive home the misogyny that allowed them to act without impunity. Instead, we get the story of the one good cop who breaks the case. Again, while the break in the case follows the actual story, the way it is handled seems to be encapsulated within the story rather than a critical part of it.
As this key plot twist is revealed, we are given another superb film w/in the film, with complex characters and execution. Unlike the asylum scenes it is tied more clearly back to the plot b/c it has to be and yet it runs like a good cop film rather than Collins’ story. The performances by all of the children and Jason Butler Harner, who plays Gordon Northcott, are superb. Yet, Eastwood’s gaze not only barely remains attached to the main plot but lands squarely on a long, drawn out, execution scene in which every moment is captured on film. These moments neither move the plot forward no resolve the issues raised about gender, children, corruption, motherhood, or even the core relationship between Collins and her son.
It is these failures that also make this film entirely too long. It has at least three endings, none of which resolve all of the various issues at hand. The least satisfying of these endings is the last one which is only redeemed by the fact that it is true.
The friends I saw it with thought the movie was wonderful. They were less concerned with the underlining messages of the film and the failure to address them in any satisfying way than with the fact the “bad guys got punished.” The found Malkovich odd and agreed he could have ended up on the cutting room floor with no consequence. And they also thought the asylum was interesting and horrifying but detached from the main plot; altho, unlike me, they felt the way it was handled was “really interesting” and therefore justified.
For me, I would have preferred less Eastwood feminism and more attention the plot, development and resolution because I believe that Collins’ story is imminently feminist on its own without manipulation, screeching, or side plots that are given short shrift. In fact, I question the decision to make Jolie’s performance largely one where she is screeching, when the moments when she isn’t show how truly capable she was of complexity in this part. I equally question a film that makes feminist points by bringing in women, whether in the asylum or the station/courtroom, just to shove them back out with no resolution.
Collins was a woman whose life was turned inside out in order to protect male power in the form of the corrupt police and judicial system. She was a mother whose child could have been saved or found had they only listened to her. Multiple women were caught up in this corruption and treated as disposable by nature of their gender; what happened to Collins could have been the center piece to their oppression.
What makes Collins’ story stand out is that she was a strong mother with a core bond to her child that she would not allow to be worn down. Eastwood was never more spot on then in the opening scene of Changeling, when Collins and her son walk home from school. Had he focused on that core relationship from beginning to end, we would have gotten a film that dealt with all of the elements I’ve pointed to as well as the unresolved issue of the Reverend (or cut him down to a minor character).
In better hands, this would have been a better movie. As it is, it is worth watching and certainly teachable. There were moments where I was deeply enmeshed in the story line. And honestly, there are at least two, possibly three, really brilliant films crammed into this one. Its potentially pretentious reference to the Oscars however, should not be rewarded.