Cops in Los Angeles were using integrity for target practice long before they started beating on Rodney King in the ’90s. In ChangelingÂ — set 80 years ago — director Clint EastwoodÂ combines a shocking â€“ and mostly true â€“ story with standout performances from Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich to create one of the riveting films of the year. Just over a decade ago, thoseÂ same elements of corruption, torture and death — set in the decade of Elvis — played out forcefully in L.A. ConfidentialÂ from director Curtis Hanson. This ’50s noirish tale of compromised honor snagged 71 film awards. Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland earned an Oscar for adapting James Ellroyâ€™s novel. Kim Basinger gave a career performance to win Best Supporting Actress. L.A. Confidential is smart, funny, very well-made and pulled $126 million in worldwide receipts, yes, but was its haunting portrayalÂ of our centurions in search of a moral compass good enough to put away the likes of Eastwood and Jolie? We’ll just see about that…
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Itâ€™s March 1928 in the Los AngelesÂ of Changeling and Christine Collins (Jolie) is called to work at the local phone company. HerÂ little boy Walter disappears without a trace. The police donâ€™t warm toÂ Christine pressing for a full-blown search. Five months later a boy isÂ abandoned at a diner in DeKalb, Illinois. Police decide itâ€™s young WalterÂ Collins and heâ€™s returned to LA. Major complication: Christine says the boy isÂ not her son, and the cops donâ€™t believe her.
During the 1920â€™s enforcing the law is incidental for theÂ LAPD. The Chief is corrupt, the force is trigger-happy and radio ministerÂ Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich) hammers an obvious point: â€œOnce the City ofÂ Angels..our protectors have become our brutalizers.â€
In short order Christine becomes an annoyance toÂ authorities: They want the case closed, without any contrary evidence fromÂ Walterâ€™s dentist or teacher about the new boyâ€™s identity. One day she pushesÂ too hard and police Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) slaps Christine backÂ with a â€œCode-12â€ commitment to the local mental ward. Christine might haveÂ disappeared from sight if not for Reverend Briegleb. He enlists a lawyer who dragsÂ this sorry mess into court. Christine has lost a son and gained a cause: SheÂ takes aim at the police practice of stashing anyone in the mental ward whoÂ becomes embarrassing or difficult.
A disturbing second story unfolds around serial child-killerÂ Gordon Northcott. His nephew, Sanford Clark, tells police about helpingÂ Northcott murder abducted boys on a ranch in Riverside County. Walter CollinsÂ is identified from photos as a kidnap victim. Is he dead or alive? ThisÂ question occupies Christine the rest of her life.
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The Defending Champion
The Red Car line ofÂ trains and electric streetcars so visible in Changeling are nowhere to beÂ seen in the 1950s setting of L.A. Confidential. Other things â€“ police
corruption â€“ remain as before. Three different cops fight back â€“ if thatâ€™s theÂ phrase â€“ against the impulse to take shortcuts, payoffs and shoot holes throughÂ their oath. Itâ€™s not easy for these flawed men.
In their own way, all three look for the main chance: EdÂ Exley (Guy Pearce) bucks for promotion like his murdered father, but he is notÂ â€œby the bookâ€ in advancing his self interests; Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey)Â welcomes the fast cash and limelight that come with being the technicalÂ adviserÂ on a cop show; Bud White (Russell Crowe) threw the book out years ago andÂ dispenses justice violently. Heâ€™s the muscle for their boss, Captain DudleyÂ Smith (James Cromwell).
Their lives intersect after a disgraced cop is gunned downÂ with other patrons in an all-night diner. The stew thickens with setups, doubleÂ crosses and drugs mixed with a Veronica Lake look-alike (Basingerâ€™s character,Â Lynn Bracken) and Pimp-to-the-Stars Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn).Â Connected to all are a series of gangland executions and gossip editor SidÂ Hudgens (Danny DeVito) who senses a buck: â€œOnce you whet the publicâ€™s appetiteÂ for truth â€“ the skyâ€™s the limit.â€
Matters soon turn bloody after Exley, White and VincennesÂ form an alliance of convenience once they discover who their real enemy is. NotÂ everyone comes out alive, or wiser.
Both movies share similarÂ strengths in similar amounts. L.A. Confidential neatly captures the studioÂ universe and the grittier life away from the sound stage. The swing andÂ mannerisms of 1950s Los Angeles scan true and a strong story comes to life withÂ a cast that meets the challenge: Spacey is suitably social yet removed; Croweâ€™sÂ violence is barely contained; events clearly reveal the nature of Guy Pearceâ€™s
character. The strong writing offers a clear understanding of their motives.
Equally notable are the performances of Kim Basinger andÂ James Cromwell. She is trapped in a life she wants to escape, and with BudÂ White, she does. Cromwell is the foul heart of this drama. The story isÂ fictional, but weaves the lives of real people (mobster Mickey Cohen, LanaÂ Turner, thug Johnny Stompanato) into the narrative.
L.A. Confidential is a great ensemble piece that stands upÂ under repeat viewings.Â Audiences will be inclined to say the same about Changeling. Angelina Jolie is the Face of Integrity, shooting back asÂ Christine Collins. She wonâ€™t go along when that would spring her from theÂ mental ward. Going along wouldnâ€™t find Christineâ€™s son, or identify theÂ changeling passed off as Walter. In the movie and in real life Christine wouldÂ have been lost to history if not for the tenacity of Gustav Briegleb. As theÂ radio minister John Malkovich hasnâ€™t played anyone this sympathetic in years.
Amy Ryanis unforgettable as mental patient Carol Dexter. Jeffrey DonovanÂ portrays the sort of smug, vindictive police captain you never want to meet. OnÂ a parallel track Jason Butler Harner is thoroughly repellent as the pedophileÂ and murderer Gordon Northcott, who confessed to killing Walter Collins andÂ later recanted.
Strong as these performances are, they are sustained by J.Â Michael Straczynskiâ€™s compelling script and Clint Eastwood in the directorâ€™sÂ chair. Former journalist Straczynski pieced together Collinsâ€™ story from oldÂ documents about to be destroyed by the City of Los Angeles. She fought and vanquishedÂ real life bad guys â€“ Captain Jones, Police Chief James E. Davis and theÂ involuntary commitment process in Los Angeles. The movie is true to the facts,Â although it deletes the existence of Northcottâ€™s grandmother. She alsoÂ participated in the killings and went to prison.
In his masterly hands, Clint Eastwood adds to his remarkableÂ directorial portfolio: Changeling is straightforward storytelling,Â gimmick-free. It logically interconnects events taking place in ChristineÂ Collinsâ€™ life and at the Northcott ranch. Those related horrors could have madeÂ two stand alone movies. Eastwood adopted that approach three years ago withÂ Flags of Our FathersÂ and Letters from Iwo Jima. This time Eastwood combinesÂ parallel elements to great effect.
Great movies but thereâ€™s enough margin to declare a winner.
You can’t lose having both ofÂ these films on the DVD shelf. They satisfy on many levels. L.A. ConfidentialÂ is so good it defies quibbling. Itâ€™s no criticism to say ConfidentialÂ presents a moment frozen in time like a bug preserved in amber. It is what itÂ is, and most times this excellent tale of integrity for sale would be enough.Â But not here. As an ensemble piece, Changeling is itsÂ equal. The eye for period detail is also perfect. Christine Collins facesÂ sex-based intolerance and the full powers of the state. And she wins. ThoseÂ personal issues seem relevant today as in the 1920s.
The difference here â€“ and itâ€™s a game decider â€“ is theÂ special skill displayed in effectively connecting the Collins storyline and theÂ Northcott storyline. It could have been a mess, but is not. Chalk that up to anÂ intelligent script and Clint Eastwoodâ€™s story sense and restraint.
L.A. Confidential is no loser, but it doesnâ€™t win. Youâ€™llÂ still enjoy it, right after you replay our winner, Changeling.