When I started reviewing films on the radio, in 1990, Clint Eastwood was still larger considered a movie star who occasionally directing movies, almost as a hobby. That consensus view was understandable, but also needlessly dismissive. Within the first few months of our radio show, Eastwood released his fourteenth and fifteen features as a director, one terrific and one atrocious. Now eighty-six years old, Eastwood has acted only twice in the past ten years. Including 2006, he’s directed ten films, and in three of those years he’s had two separate offerings released as the same calendar hangs on the wall. 

Clint Eastwood is a director who resolutely, rigidly adheres to the material he’s chosen. He has a fine visual sense, to be sure, and is an effective storyteller, but he’s not going to pull a film together by bringing his passions, sensibilities and personal inspiration to bear on the project. He’s a seasoned factory worker doing his part to get the car built. In the end, it may be a sturdy piece of craftsmanship, but it’s easier to see it as admirable construct that a piece of vivid art. That’s one of the reasons screenwriter Paul Haggis has been a well-suited collaborator on recent films. Haggis leans on cliches, finding small ways to tweak expectations in the process. It’s given Eastwood familiar narrative angles that play to his strengths and allowed just enough freshness in the fringes to compel some amount of forgiveness for the pieces that stand out as worn-out movie moments. Million Dollar Baby may be manipulative melodrama, but it’s gripping manipulative melodrama.

The screenwriter of Eastwood’s latest film, the wrenching drama Changeling, is J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski’s most notable prior work has been highly episodic in nature. Those writing habits manifest in the script as it builds to multiple climaxes instead of rolling out a single cohesive story. Eastwood, ever dutiful to his script, doesn’t smooth that out, giving the film a bumpy feel.

That unyielding solidity of Eastwood’s approach–an old school stodginess almost–is as much a strength as it is a weakness. Based on a true story, the film centers on the anguish of Christine Collins, whose son disappeared in the late 1920’s. After several months, the Los Angeles Police Department reported they’d found him, but Christine insisted the boy they presented to her was not her offspring. Her efforts to convince the authorities of their mistake and to force them to continue in the hunt for her son were met with outright hostility and even persecution. Eastwood has a sure hand in depicting this. The lives of Christine and her son are laid out with unfussy care and the escalation of her woe is palpable. The thematic points about the casual sexism of the era and the ways in which fear of negative public perception drove the decision-making of the authorities is embedded rather than overt.

It helps immeasurably that Eastwood has Angelina Jolie in the central role. Jolie is inescapably a star, but, placed in the right film, she is a shrewd, graceful actor of the highest capability. She makes a choice that seems especially honest given the cultural time and the circumstances of the film: She plays Christine with a greatly tentative nature. Even as she’s pushing against the system, she’s quick to acquiesce to the powers that impatiently knock her back down. Jolie’s star power largely emanates from a fiery personal authority and sexually-charged fearlessness. When she coasts on that, it can be pretty boring (admittedly, I can also be a pure sucker for it). When she channels it into a more tightly focused performance that draws on different shadings of personality, as she did with last year’s A Mighty Heart and as she does here, it’s immensely rewarding to watch.

In fact, Jolie’s richly realized performance gives the film a cohesion that would otherwise be absent. The script brings in several different elements–there are many stories connected to Christine’s–to a point where it occasionally threatens to become unwieldy. She develops her character–her personal growth, her tenacity, her intellectual fortitude–with an thoroughness that the scattershot narrative story structure can sometimes undercut. But even when the film drifts away from Christine for too long, Jolie’s performance looms as a promise. It heightens what works in the film and obscures what doesn’t. It’s just the kind of performance that Eastwood needs, and he deserves credit for his collaborative work with Jolie to get it to the screen. The old hand may not be infallible. It may seem more like work than art, but you can still look at it and see his influence, the unmistakable marks of fine craftsmanship.

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