Perhaps it’s my inability to pin down a specific thematic element in Eastwood’s oeuvre that makes him such an elusive figure. His directorial efforts are largely agreeable, and as I noted in my review of The Outlaw Josey Wales, there’s nothing that defines his films as singularly Eastwood.
Changeling departs from his male-oriented central perspective (note to self: thematic resonance tied down to gender?) by centering his film on a woman. Gender politics play a crucial role in the way Changeling is structured and along with the casting of Angelina Jolie (she’s adequate in the role, though a disappointingly “safe” choice), Changeling is driven to tell its narrative through a subordinated, albeit strong, female perspective.
Changeling’s strengths and faults stem from Jolie herself. A strong actress and image, her physical presence does not lend to the timid. And initially, that is what Eastwood demands of her. As Christine Collins, Jolie’s role as a grieving mother is one that has two dimensions – she starts off as someone entirely ordinary and transforms into someone of greater moral conviction. Jolie’s helplessness act simply doesn’t come across as genuine. Given the media circus that tends to surround her and the life of her family, Jolie’s image is like that of George Clooney – there’s strength in their image that makes their attempts at fragility come across as inherently false. That’s not to say it can’t be done, as Clooney’s roles in say, The American or Up in the Air, can conceivably be seen as a purposeful attempt to deconstruct his image. But with Jolie, the material simply isn’t there in Changeling, at least not to the point of making her convincingly frail.
My reservations in buying Mrs. Jolie as a timid mother were put to rest once the narrative began to focus on the development of her strengthened moral vigor. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski sets out to create a very clear-cut three-act narrative, and while the plotting may occasionally dip into the conventional, there is a lingering sense of doubt as to how the film will play out. Jolie is particularly astute in her attempts to create sympathy for her character in the second act, as she simultaneously combats the emotional work of losing a child and being victimized by a male-dominated institution. She loses her sense of naivety that defined her character from the onset, and becomes something more distinctly resolute in her ways.
And then there’s Mr. Eastwood. His direction remains unobtrusive, tiptoeing a line between sedated precision and astute laziness. I suppose “traditional” would be the best way to describe his method, though it seems like an inadequate way of describing Changeling. As a whole, Changeling is a tough film to judge, as its formal qualities are completely judicious, though it all comes together as a product of such strict adherence to being formally excellent that it stumbles a little short from achieving it.