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Dirty Harry Makes Anti-Cop Movie

Clint Eastwood is sort of like one of those Supreme Court justices who goes to Washington with one set of ideas, firmly established over a lifetime. After a few years' exposure to bright shiny new folks who drop hints about how warmly they'd welcome him if only he'd merely renounce everything he stood for, the justice discovers the virtues of "evolving" -- and the price of holding firm.

Once Eastwood made military movies, Westerns, and cop movies. Now, following his anti-military (Flags of Our Fathers) and anti-Western (Unforgiven) films, he has one last mission to complete, with the anti-cop picture Changeling. By coincidence, his early movies never won Oscars. Now Eastwood finds himself with armloads of awards every winter. He is fully evolved.

Changeling isn't a terrible movie. It's a well-made if workmanlike product, an involving drama with an especially pleasing sense of period detail. But it's also small, earnest, and formulaic. Its dialogue lands consistently on the nose and the superb production values dress up a story with the same DNA as your standard woman-against-the-world TV movie.

Angelina Jolie, who has crossed the line between thin and emaciated, plays a young single mother in 1928 Los Angeles whose son disappears while she is at work at the telephone company. After a while, cops deliver her son back to her. Except, as she loudly insists from the start, it isn't her son. The cops tell her to pipe down and not make trouble lest she be thrown in a mental institution.

The name of the game here is maturity and complexity; those are the words critics throw at Eastwood (or, rather, place lovingly at his feet) whenever he makes an "evolved" film. But is Changeling really more complex than Dirty Harry?

It's "a true story," we're told at the outset, and this is an unusually strong choice of words. Usually the movie is merely "based on" or "inspired by" a true story. So I guess everything that happens in this movie is the literal truth, including the feminist stump speech delivered by a fellow inmate (Amy Ryan) at the insane asylum and the scene where the waifish-bordering-on-translucent Jolie character, Christine Collins, grabs a vicious (and much larger) serial killer by the lapels and slams him up against the windows demanding information. Complex? Mature? Or ridiculous?

I actually laughed at this scene, in which Jolie is simply Harry Callahan in a dress. But it will play fine with critics because they, as much as the mass audience, like having the same buttons pressed again and again. Except their buttons work in reverse: What excites them is to see cops humiliated, just as in previous years they wanted U.S. patriotism taken down a peg (Flags) and requested a little respect, please, for what to everyone else appeared to be simply immense evil, the armed forces of imperial Japan (Letters from Iwo Jima).

Eastwood is a competent filmmaker, not a master. He has a weakness for the broad stroke, for making things too easy. Jolie is completely virtuous, the cops opposing her utterly contemptible. Supposing Changeling is a completely true story (and I don't), white hats and black hats still don't make for a terribly illuminating experience. That's why Dirty Harry was a hero with a dark side. You could leave the theater arguing over his motivations.

There is nothing to argue in Changeling; Christine is merely the standard-issue lone woman with a grievance against the system, and movies like this one are nothing new. You could have made it in 1938, with Bette Davis in suffering mode.

It is strange that the only character in the movie in whom Eastwood bothers to locate much nuance and complexity is a murderer who (in a mawkish and overdone 1930s-style execution scene that compares poorly to, say, the chilling and severe one in Capote) sings "Silent Night" as the executioners prepare him for the big drop and who, naturally, has just gotten to the words "mother and child" when his life ends. It's illustrative of an entire movie in which a filmmaker who thinks he is doing a serious, thought-provoking drama instead makes his position a little too obvious. Changeling has its merits, but it's a movie that will quickly be forgotten.

Changeling

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Gattlin Griffith, Michelle Martin, Michael Kelly

2.5 stars/ 4

141 minutes/Rated R