I’m not sure that Clint Eastwood intended it to be, but Changeling is in my mind one of the quintessential films of the “George W. Bush lame duck” period in American pop culture. That is: the period of intense malaise and disillusionment that started around the time of Katrina and is just now beginning to subside.
The Bush years are nearing their end, but they have been brutal. They’ve been infuriating. There have been casualties in more ways than one (most recently: the Republican party). Deceit, mischief, corruption, and disgrace have been rampant.
And so it is in Changeling—a period film about a woman (Angelina Jolie) who falls victim to a corrupt police force in 1930s Los Angeles, but then fights back with the help of a local preacher (John Malkovich).
Changeling is a brilliant, compelling, beautifully rendered examination of the ebb and flow of power in a fallen world. Each character in the film is seeking power or losing it; the balance is always shifting. In one corner is the LAPD, doing unthinkably corrupt things to keep bad PR away. In another corner is Jolie’s character, whose sanity and feminine wherewithal is questioned at every turn by the misogynistic hegemony. Other characters fighting for power include a prostitute (Amy Ryan) thrown into the psych ward for no good reason, a serial killer who gets power from kidnapping and cutting to pieces little children, and a progressive pastor (Malkovich) on a mission to expose corruption within the police force.
Eastwood is a master filmmaker, and he doesn’t disappoint here—unleashing the film’s power shifts and struggles at just the right intervals, all with the economy and fine-toothed subtlety he’s perfected in his late career.
Changeling is a true and compelling story of a long-lost, hard-to-imagine American culture, as well as a nod to 1930s cinema (particularly social problem films like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang), but it is also a film that is evocative of 2008 America. It’s a film that reminds us that corruption doesn’t win, at the end of the day… that there is always hope for change, for reform, for vindication.
And all of that seems to capture the tenor of this country right now. We’re caught up in the fervor of change, in the power that change offers to the beleaguered and disenfranchised. Changeling gets its title from the notion of a “substitute child,” but I’d be surprised if Eastwood didn’t pick the title because it begins with Change. It’s the word on all our minds. Will change really come? What will it look like?
Perhaps I’m reading too much Obama into Changeling, but maybe not. Either way, you should see this movie.