Set in a 1928 Los Angeles defined more by shadowy interiors than sunshine, with only a few changes the Clint Eastwood-directed Changeling could work as a horror movie. Angelina Jolie plays a single mother who, returning late from a shift as a switchboard supervisor, finds her nine-year-old son vanished. Months later she receives the happy news that he's turned up in an Illinois diner. But when Jolie is taken to meet the boy under the watchful eyes of the Chief Of Police (Colme Feore) and the media, she's horrified to discover that he's not her son, a fact that no one else involved in the case will acknowledge.
The film could double as a paranoid fantasy if it weren't rooted in the true story of Christine Collins. Though it seems ridiculous that anyone would question whether a mother would know her own child, the more Jolie points out obvious differences—that, for instance, the boy returned to her is circumcised, unlike her son—the deeper the police, particularly an arrogant captain played by Jeffrey Donovan, commit to their absurd story. (At one point, Donovan even sends a doctor to explain how it's possible the kid could have shrunk a few inches in height as part of the ordeal.) Not easily dissuaded, and backed by a radio minister (John Malkovich) who's made pointing out the abuses of the police a regular part of his broadcasts, Jolie refuses to give in, even as the consequences of her refusal become increasingly dire.
Eastwood's film works best as a thorough—and sadly timely—depiction of what happens when a government institution decides that adhering to an official narrative is more important than discovering the truth. Why admit a mistake when their version of the facts solves the case and gets Jolie a son back, whether he's really hers or not? (That she's up against all-male antagonists, for whom words like "hysteria" provide all the explanation they need to ignore her, is never mentioned but hard to ignore.)
Working from a screenplay by Babylon 5 creator and comics fixture J. Michael Straczynski, Eastwood creates a tone that's at once stately and unsettling, allowing a lot of breathing room for Jolie's sad, unyielding performance. She anchors a film that needs an anchor the further it goes along. Where much of Changeling works at once as a compelling mystery and an agonizing human drama, it starts to drift in a series of final scenes that finish the story while losing all sense of urgency. But in the end, it's the big picture that lingers, a vision of a city in which poor stewardship and institutional rot claims victims as surely as criminals, tying up loose ends with manufactured endings that fall part with a tug.