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By Pete Vonder Haar | November 1, 2008

Clint Eastwood has chosen to bring audiences some history in his recent films. “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” looked at both sides of the War in the Pacific, and “Changeling” – Eastwood’s latest – examines the 1928 case of 10-year Walter Collins, whose disappearance led to the exposure of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders and the shake-up of the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department.

Of course, Eastwood doesn’t take things that high level. At the center of the movie is Walter’s mother Christine (Angelina Jolie), who works tirelessly to get her son back. Five months after his disappearance, Christine is informed by the cop in charge of her case, Capt. Jones (“Burn Notice’s” Jeffrey Donovan) that her son has turned up in Illinois. Trouble is, the boy claiming to be Walter obviously isn’t. Christine’s attempts to convince an embattled police department desperately in need of good PR of this fact are met with annoyance and, eventually, hostility, culminating in her involuntary incarceration in the psych ward.

It’s interesting to see Jolie, whom we know to be something of an independent sort, playing a character who’s often forced to hold her tongue. Lest we forget, the early 20th century was no picnic for non-whites and non-males, which is why only the fear Christine feels for the welfare of her child motivates her to speak up. Jolie gets it done here, nailing down at least three Best Actress archetypes (the Stricken Mother, the Single Working Woman, and the Woman in the Nuthatch), and her performance helps overcome most of “Changeling’s” weaker elements.

Eastwood has put together some powerful scenes, including an execution that’s as harrowing as any I’ve seen. That said, the loony bin scenes drift into melodrama (Oscar nominee Amy Ryan suffers the brunt of the indignation here) and the courtroom finale is almost Perry Mason-esque, true story or not. Similarly, the pathological nature of the police department’s stonewalling when Christine and, later, crusading reverend Gustav Briegleb (an underutilized John Malkovich) continue to press her claims hints at something deeper at work other than mere incompetence.

But Eastwood also evokes a more classic Hollywood style. The events following Walter’s disappearance unfold – I don’t want to say “leisurely” – but he doesn’t rush things, allowing the movie to develop at a more naturalistic place. Gone also are the pitfalls that befell “Flags of Our Fathers” (stale message) and “Million Dollar Baby” (stupid twist). J. Michael Straczynski’s script is likewise unforced and believable.

But it’s Jolie that really keeps things on track. Whatever you think of her public image or some of her past roles, she’s really come into her own. “Changeling” is an almost universally impressive all-around effort, and is the best “dirty underbelly of Los Angeles” movie since “L.A. Confidential.”

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