Cannes, In Competition

CANNES -- For only the second time in his filmmaking career, Clint Eastwood's celebration of the loner who bucks the system, the "cowboy" who demands justice without concern for personal jeopardy, settles on a heroine. Like Hilary Swank's boxer in "Million Dollar Baby," Angelina Jolie's single mother, Christine Collins, takes every punch thrown at her and comes back fighting. Her combat is not in a boxing ring -- where fighting is supposed to take place -- but rather in a corrupt police department, psychiatric ward and the court of justice where she demands to know one thing: What happened to her son?

A true story that is as incredible as it is compelling, "Changeling" brushes away the romantic notion of a more innocent time to reveal a Los Angeles circa 1928 awash in corruption and steeped in a culture that treats women as hysterical and unreliable beings when they challenge male wisdom.

Jolie puts on a powerful emotional display as a tenacious woman who gathers strength from the forces that oppose her. She reminds us that there is nothing so fierce as a mother protecting her cub.

The combination of Jolie and Eastwood would ordinarily mean boffo boxoffice, but "Changeling" is a tricky movie to market as it touches on every parent's greatest fear -- the disappearance of a child -- and is a period film that deals with a situation unimaginable in contemporary American society. Universal's challenge is to make the film's concerns connect with an audience more interested in the kind of police corruption usually found in Scorsese films.

In March 1928, Christine Collins' nine-year-old son Walter vanishes. Five months later, the LAPD, already under the gun for other unsolved crimes, calls out the press and delivers to Christine a boy who claims to be her son but is not. To avoid embarrassment, Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) demands she take the boy home on a "trial basis." When she continues to insist that the LAPD needs to find her real son, Jones does what the department always does with troublesome citizens -- he locks her up in a psycho ward.

A radio minister, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), takes up her cause and challenges the police version of events. Meanwhile, another officer, Detective Ybarra (Michael Kelly), launches an investigation into a potential serial killer (Jason Butler Harner) that not only proves Christine's contention but exposes the force, its chief and the mayor to the wrath of a citizenry fed up with living in a police state.

This story, uncovered by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski in the city's own records and newspapers, adds a forgotten chapter to the L.A. noir of "Chinatown" and "Hollywood Confidential." Christine's utter intransigence and true-seeking in the face of absolute corruption does what no newspaper in that city is willing to do -- challenge the official stories of City Hall.

Sticking fairly closely to the facts, the movie necessarily drags us through a couple of courtrooms that cause the drama to sag momentarily. But Straczynski and Eastwood are good at cutting to the chase. Seldom does a 141-minute movie feel this short.

Jolie completely shuns her movie star image to play a woman whose confidence in everything she thinks she knows is shaken to its very core. She can appear vulnerable and steadfast in the same moment. This woman has a depth she herself has never explored.

Save for another incarcerated police victim played by the fabulous Amy Ryan, most other roles tend toward righteousness or badness without too many shades in between.

The movie draws considerable strength from Eastwood's own melodic score that evokes not only a period but also the mood of a city and even a country nervously undergoing galvanic changes. The small-town feel to the street and sets, seeming oh-so-quaint to modern eyes, captures a society resistant to seeing what is really going.

So in "Changeling" Eastwood continues to probe uncomfortable subjects to depict the individual and even existential struggle to do what is right. Christine sees no other option. And in pursuing the truth, she forces a city to take a stand and demand accountably from its politicians and police. Her boy has been changed under her horror-stricken nose. But then again, so has she.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, Jason Butler Harner, Amy Ryan. Director/music: Clint Eastwood. Screenwriter: J. Michael Straczynski. Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Robert Lorenz. Executive producer: Tim Moore, Jim Whitaker. Director of photography: Tom Stern. Production designer: James Murakami. Costume designer: Deborah Hopper. Editor: Joel Cox, Gary Roach.
Production companies: Universal Pictures presents an Imagine Entertainment/Malpaso Prods.
Sales: Universal Pictures.
No MPAA rating, 141 minutes.