Cops in Los Angeles were using integrity for target practice long before they started beating on Rodney King in the ’90s. In Changeling — set 80 years ago — director Clint Eastwood combines a shocking – and mostly true – 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, those same elements of corruption, torture and death — set in the decade of Elvis — played out forcefully in L.A. Confidential 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 Ellroy’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 portrayal 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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It’s March 1928 in the Los Angeles of Changeling and Christine Collins (Jolie) is called to work at the local phone company. Her little boy Walter disappears without a trace. The police don’t warm to Christine pressing for a full-blown search. Five months later a boy is abandoned at a diner in DeKalb, Illinois. Police decide it’s young Walter Collins and he’s returned to LA. Major complication: Christine says the boy is not her son, and the cops don’t believe her.
During the 1920’s enforcing the law is incidental for the LAPD. The Chief is corrupt, the force is trigger-happy and radio minister Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich) hammers an obvious point: “Once the City of Angels..our protectors have become our brutalizers.”
In short order Christine becomes an annoyance to authorities: They want the case closed, without any contrary evidence from Walter’s dentist or teacher about the new boy’s identity. One day she pushes too hard and police Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) slaps Christine back with a “Code-12” commitment to the local mental ward. Christine might have disappeared from sight if not for Reverend Briegleb. He enlists a lawyer who drags this sorry mess into court. Christine has lost a son and gained a cause: She takes aim at the police practice of stashing anyone in the mental ward who becomes embarrassing or difficult.
A disturbing second story unfolds around serial child-killer Gordon Northcott. His nephew, Sanford Clark, tells police about helping Northcott murder abducted boys on a ranch in Riverside County. Walter Collins is identified from photos as a kidnap victim. Is he dead or alive? This question occupies Christine the rest of her life.
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The Defending Champion
The Red Car line of trains and electric streetcars so visible in Changeling are nowhere to be seen in the 1950s setting of L.A. Confidential. Other things – police
corruption – remain as before. Three different cops fight back – if that’s the phrase – against the impulse to take shortcuts, payoffs and shoot holes through their oath. It’s not easy for these flawed men.
In their own way, all three look for the main chance: Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) bucks for promotion like his murdered father, but he is not “by the book” in advancing his self interests; Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) welcomes the fast cash and limelight that come with being the technical adviser on a cop show; Bud White (Russell Crowe) threw the book out years ago and dispenses justice violently. He’s the muscle for their boss, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell).
Their lives intersect after a disgraced cop is gunned down with other patrons in an all-night diner. The stew thickens with setups, double crosses and drugs mixed with a Veronica Lake look-alike (Basinger’s character, Lynn Bracken) and Pimp-to-the-Stars Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Connected to all are a series of gangland executions and gossip editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) who senses a buck: “Once you whet the public’s appetite for truth – the sky’s the limit.”
Matters soon turn bloody after Exley, White and Vincennes form an alliance of convenience once they discover who their real enemy is. Not everyone comes out alive, or wiser.
Both movies share similar strengths in similar amounts. L.A. Confidential neatly captures the studio universe and the grittier life away from the sound stage. The swing and mannerisms of 1950s Los Angeles scan true and a strong story comes to life with a cast that meets the challenge: Spacey is suitably social yet removed; Crowe’s violence is barely contained; events clearly reveal the nature of Guy Pearce’s
character. The strong writing offers a clear understanding of their motives.
Equally notable are the performances of Kim Basinger and James Cromwell. She is trapped in a life she wants to escape, and with Bud White, she does. Cromwell is the foul heart of this drama. The story is fictional, but weaves the lives of real people (mobster Mickey Cohen, Lana Turner, thug Johnny Stompanato) into the narrative.
L.A. Confidential is a great ensemble piece that stands up under repeat viewings. Audiences will be inclined to say the same about Changeling. Angelina Jolie is the Face of Integrity, shooting back as Christine Collins. She won’t go along when that would spring her from the mental ward. Going along wouldn’t find Christine’s son, or identify the changeling passed off as Walter. In the movie and in real life Christine would have been lost to history if not for the tenacity of Gustav Briegleb. As the radio minister John Malkovich hasn’t played anyone this sympathetic in years.
Amy Ryanis unforgettable as mental patient Carol Dexter. Jeffrey Donovan portrays the sort of smug, vindictive police captain you never want to meet. On a parallel track Jason Butler Harner is thoroughly repellent as the pedophile and murderer Gordon Northcott, who confessed to killing Walter Collins and later recanted.
Strong as these performances are, they are sustained by J. Michael Straczynski’s compelling script and Clint Eastwood in the director’s chair. Former journalist Straczynski pieced together Collins’ story from old documents about to be destroyed by the City of Los Angeles. She fought and vanquished real life bad guys – Captain Jones, Police Chief James E. Davis and the involuntary commitment process in Los Angeles. The movie is true to the facts, although it deletes the existence of Northcott’s grandmother. She also participated in the killings and went to prison.
In his masterly hands, Clint Eastwood adds to his remarkable directorial portfolio: Changeling is straightforward storytelling, gimmick-free. It logically interconnects events taking place in Christine Collins’ life and at the Northcott ranch. Those related horrors could have made two stand alone movies. Eastwood adopted that approach three years ago with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. This time Eastwood combines parallel elements to great effect.
Great movies but there’s enough margin to declare a winner.
You can’t lose having both of these films on the DVD shelf. They satisfy on many levels. L.A. Confidential is so good it defies quibbling. It’s no criticism to say Confidential presents a moment frozen in time like a bug preserved in amber. It is what it is, and most times this excellent tale of integrity for sale would be enough. But not here. As an ensemble piece, Changeling is its equal. The eye for period detail is also perfect. Christine Collins faces sex-based intolerance and the full powers of the state. And she wins. Those personal issues seem relevant today as in the 1920s.
The difference here – and it’s a game decider – is the special skill displayed in effectively connecting the Collins storyline and the Northcott storyline. It could have been a mess, but is not. Chalk that up to an intelligent script and Clint Eastwood’s story sense and restraint.
L.A. Confidential is no loser, but it doesn’t win. You’ll still enjoy it, right after you replay our winner, Changeling.