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Metropolis in the Making:
Los Angeles in the 1920s
by Tom Sitton, William Deverell
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
Two images endure after seeing this Clint Eastwood period expose' of crime in Los Angeles in 1928. One is the sheer ineptitude of police officials who decide matters of fact and science according to their retention of bureaucratic position and status. The second image of retention are those cushiony lips in scarlett red, bravely--even aggressively--emphasized for period verisimilitude. When the paint job is on Angelina Jolie's lips the effect becomes indelible.
Once again, Los Angeles provides the turf for scandal-ridden history. After such troubling entries in the L.A. record of crimes and how they've been dealt with, brought to notice by such films as "L.A. Confidential," "The Black Dahlia," and, going back to the bitter water wars, the noirish "Chinatown." The casual observer from other states and farther out to sea might well see a pervasive pattern and a bleak history. But, it's not the hotbed of corruption as it may seem.
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is an abandoned wife with 10-year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith). As a roller-skating supervisor of a bank of women on the switchboards of the day, she's capable of providing good shelter for herself and son, as well as caring for him in a loving, protective manner, seeing him off to school from the trolley car on her way to work. It's not a bad life for a fashionable, intelligent woman of the twenties.
Until she comes home one day to find Walter gone without a clue. After searching the neighborhood to be certain it's not a case of boyhood carelessness or forgetfulness, she goes to the police who send an investigative team out to her bungalow the following morning. A national bulletin is issued at once.
The immediacy and all-out nature of the response is comforting to Christine, even though it may have something to do with the upcoming mayoral race and the need for Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore) and his Captain, J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) to pull off a coup that will translate into votes and the perpetuation of their jobs.
Months pass, Christine remains frantic, calling for some news daily, the papers are making it a public issue and local reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) is praying for the return of the boy in his congregation despite the fact that the Collins aren't members of it. Captain Jones, who might have been trained in a public relations college, is building a moat of faultlessness around his cherished squad.
An immediate effort is pressed upon the poor woman to doubt her own perception and she winds up taking the boy in while continuing to protest about the police halting their search for her real offspring. Nothing changes their position. To accept this woman's accusation would amount to failure they may not recover from--a stain on their record and a threat to their jobs. Their version must prevail despite the fact that this new boy is three inches shorter than Walter, that the dentist and Walter's teacher confirm the switch. The cops stick to their story to the point of throwing Christine in a mental institution to force her to recant.
This she doesn't do, under drugs and pain. The story is one about a modest woman of great determination who fought the system and the Herculean odds against her by a powerful institution.
This subject matter is based on the actual "Wineville Chicken Murders" that led to a governmental makeover and two major court cases including Christine's. At 141 minutes, Eastwood's version of it risks the setting in of fatigue and a squandering of the story's grip on our fascination. What seems so extended becomes distended and one might wish for thirty minutes less of it by careful compression across the board.
This time out, the maestro shows varied storytelling skill as he treats us to near flawless period reconstruction, a swamping emphasis on Jolie's lips--such that it's borderline comedic--and far more screentime than what's essential for the character and her situation. It's almost as though the director is providing a compensatory opportunity for the boxoffice star to prove her acting creds in another push for Academy glory. After her 2000 Oscar win for "Girl, Interrupted," and so many other awards and nominations to give a girl confidence, there seems to be a need to prove again what a great actress she is. Especially, after the failed ploy to do so with "A Mighty Heart," a tear-jerking mis-fire at award targets.
Colm Feore and Jeffrey Donovan are suitably stiff-necked villains who are forced to handle their criminally damaging, ego-driven arrogance when finally exposed to the light of decency. Amy Ryan's institutionalized prostitute (say that fast, 10 times) was an inspired choice. She can be down and gritty and believable when it counts, like in "Gone Baby Gone." Very notable, too, is Michael Kelly ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith") who, as good cop Detective Lester Ybarra, shows blessedly laid-back spine and laconic expression as he becomes the voice for real, non-political police work while demonstrating by contrast how effectively understatement trumps pervasive melodrama.
Jason Butler Harner's channelling of the wholesale serial killer Gordon Northcott fills the screen with loony unpredictability, the one performance that is an inspiration of character re-creation. He gives us a nutcase who is beyond edgy and off balance and Eastwood well understands its contribution to the realism of his story by allowing him to play it out without apparent constraint.
Kudos are in order, as well, for the technical department--first for flawless period recreation and second for cinematographer Tom Stern's textural enhancement, with lighting and color palette variances keyed to the story (the trailer illustrates this well). Director Eastwood provided the guitar and piano score.
Which takes me back to the growing Eastwood canon and his range of subject matter. Few filmmakers enjoy the combination of independence and studio backing that he does. He commands, as well, legions of artists willing to work for scale just to be on his set--witness several actors who can be spotted as silent extras."
Whatever creative and business impulses guide the esteemed actor-director, without the pressure of outside discipline, he's given to the flaw of literary overstatement instead of the virtue of concision. When he puts it together right he puts forth a masterpiece, like "Unforgiven," and knockouts like "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby." "Changeling" might not be in that exalted category of excellence, but it's still worth seeing.
~~ Jules Brenner