Angelina Jolie is Hollywood’s most famous wife and mother, and if we can believe the tabloids, her Miracle-Gro family is forever on the verge of being torn asunder by one calamity or another. But those scenarios pale next to the real-life scenarios of the shattered women she’s been portraying onscreen lately. In last year’s A Mighty Heart, Jolie played Mariane Pearl, whose journalist husband, Daniel Pearl, was beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan when she was five months pregnant. Now in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, based on another true story of abduction and murder, Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother and switchboard operator whose nine-year-old son, Walter, vanished from her home in a suburb of Los Angeles in 1928.
The twist in this stranger-than-fiction tale is that five months later the LAPD finds a boy who claims to be Walter—and “reunites” mother and son with great fanfare in a staged photo-op for the press. The child is an imposter. But when Collins tries to point out the error, the police insist she’s wrong and try to silence her to avoid embarrassment. A Presbyterian firebrand, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), champions her cause from his pulpit radio broadcast. Turning the press against her, the police brand her delusional and have her forcefully committed to a mental institution. But Collins persists in her fight for justice, eventually helping bring down a viciously corrupt LAPD.
This real-life fable of a pre-feminist heroine battling a sinister conspiracy is so outrageous it’s hard to believe it happened—and has not already been minted as legend. It’s a true buried treasure. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist, stumbled across the case when a source at city hall asked him to look at some old records that were about to be dumped into the incinerator. He unearthed the story of the cover-up, and of the serial killer who murdered Walter—his identity did not come to light until after Collins’s death in 1935. When Eastwood received the Changeling script, it was pasted with newspaper clippings—as if Straczynski (known for writing TV science fiction and Marvel comics) shared his heroine’s need to prove the story was not some wild invention.
When I first saw Changeling in Cannes, I had no idea it was a true story until the final credits. From the title it sounded like a horror film—perhaps a remake of the 1980s The Changeling, a haunted house movie. Under Eastwood’s sturdy but heavy-handed direction, it certainly played like Gothic melodrama, a black-and-white contest between good and evil. And it was hard to swallow.
But as Mark Twain famously said, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” In other words, while fiction must be credible, non-fiction has permission to be preposterous. (In America these days, it’s almost de rigueur—no one could have scripted Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential pageant without being accused of concocting a wildly satirical and rather derivative chick flick.) But in a movie “based on” a true story, if the drama doesn’t have a ring of authenticity, it can seem even more suspect than fiction, especially if the source material is distant and obscure: it makes you wonder what really happened.
Which is not to accuse Eastwood or the screenwriter of tampering with history. It’s the film’s starchy period style and high moral tone that give pause. Although the story is riveting, it’s less credible than, say, Chinatown, a noir fiction about an equally lurid L.A. conspiracy. Changeling’s characters are so broadly drawn—from the righteous crusader played by Malkovich to the bloodless police chief played by Canada’s Colm Feore—it makes you wonder if the screenwriter’s Marvel comics pedigree has rubbed off. As for Jolie, although she’s often underrated as an actor, here she may be miscast. I’ve been unable to find a photo of the real Christine Collins. But it’s hard to imagine that she looked anything like this savagely contemporary movie star. Jolie is styled as a vintage screen siren, which suggests an erotic glamour absent from the story, and is as misleading as her supersized pout in the poster.
Crying her eyes out in relentless close-ups, Angelina delivers the kind of bravura performance that should guarantee her the Oscar nomination she deserved for the raw vérité of A Mighty Heart. I found her more believable embodying the strangled grief of Mariane Pearl, to whom she bore an uncanny resemblance. But in Hollywood, as in politics, the unvarnished truth will only take you so far.