In a nutshell:
A boy goes missing in LA in the 1920s. Some six months later, he is
returned to his mother, and the heartwarming mother and son reunion is
touted as a brilliant example of painstaking police work. Only one slight
problem: the boy who returns to her is not her son. He is an imposter. She
keeps trying to convince the police that they need to continue the search
for her real son, but the police are not willing to undermine the good PR
they established with their "successful" solution to the case, and are not
willing to face the bad publicity that would result from having that
solution undermined. The mother keeps amassing evidence that the boy is
not her son, and the corrupt police have no recourse other than to use an
obscure legal procedure to have her committed to an asylum, for she must
be mentally ill if she will not accept her own child! The police have
gotten away with similar machinations in the past, but fail this time
because of the efforts of a crusading minister whose life is dedicated to
the relentless exposure of police incompetence and greed.
True story. And the screenplay stays as close as possible to the facts
of the case.
Although Changeling is considered an important movie (8.1 at IMDb and
two Golden Globe nominations), and features both a major star in Angelina
Jolie and an esteemed director in Clint Eastwood, I'm not going to devote
as many words to it as I normally would. The reason is that the
Wikipedia Page for this film is absolutely superlative. In terms of
background, it says everything I would have said and more.
In terms of evaluation, I have only a few minor points:
A) I liked the overall look and feel which Eastwood gave to the
1920s, and I was impressed by the the sparse, melancholy score, which he
wrote himself. He's a talented man.
B) Overall, the movie doesn't work for me. The fundamental reasons
1) Most important, the film goes on about half an hour after the
story I described above has ended. The final act is about a serial
killer who may or may not have killed the real missing son, and whose
story is basically just an epilogue which has only a peripheral (and
tenuous) relationship to the story of the mother and the police. In my
opinion, the final 30 minutes (or so) could have been covered with a
single word slide. We do want to know what happened to the real son, and
we have to know the motivations of the imposter, but the serial killer's
back-story is one of those "meanwhile, in another movie ..."
2) Changeling breaks Scoop's first rule of biopics, which goes
something like this: "If we did not know in advance whether the story
were true, but simply watched it cold, would we still find it a good
movie? A factual film must be able to exist on its own, without leaning
on the crutch of truth." I watched this film and did not know how
painstakingly accurate it was. Therefore, in addition to the
anti-climactic nature of the film's final act, I also objected to
elements of plot and characterization which I considered melodramatic,
unrealistic, and lacking in nuance.
Having established that, I have to admit that I did study the details
of the story after I watched the film and, having done that, I found it
completely shocking and terrifying that such a thing happened in the USA
in the 20th century. Little had I known that reality was unrealistic in
this case. I then realized, in retrospect, that the film did effectively
drive home the emotional core of that shock and terror.
So there you have it. If you watch the film knowing that it presents a
fair and accurate account of a true story, and are interested in such a
story, you will probably be profoundly moved and will undoubtedly lose a
small portion of whatever faith you have in the essential goodness of
mankind. If you watch it cold, as I did, you will likely find it to be
melodramatic and unrealistic, because sometimes reality is stranger than
fiction can dare to be.
You make the call.