Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" is a changeling of a movie. It starts out as one movie and then turns into another.
Fortunately, both movies are related and both are worth seeing, which makes the 2 1/2 hours spent in its company reasonably absorbing if by no means satisfying.
It's the first half of the movie that's extraordinary. The basic story of the film -- based on a real case -- is an utterly amazing one. That's were we learn about a single mother (Angelina Jolie) whose 9-year-old son disappeared on a March afternoon in 1928 while she worked as a supervisor at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph.
She was going to take her sensitive son to the movies, but they rang her from the office, told her some people called in sick, and you know the rest. She was a dedicated worker so she went in and left her son with a sandwich in the fridge for lunch and neighbors set to look in on him.
When Christine Collins came home, not only was the sandwich still wrapped in neat wax paper in the refrigerator, but her son Walter's bed had been made.
But there was no Walter.
She reported it to the police, who at the time were in the process of being (accurately) lambasted by an L.A. radio preacher (John Malkovich) as "the most violent, corrupt police department that side of the Rocky Mountains." The police chief at the time and his aptly named Gun Squad shot first, never bothered with questions at all and did whatever was necessary to solidify their power in a place that had long since stopped being a City of Angels.
A growing movement of righteous citizens was sick to death of L.A. as the wild west in 1928.
The police department was in desperate need of, among other things, "good press."
And that's where this story becomes a bit mind-boggling.
In August -- five months later -- a boy was found in Illinois and returned to Christine Collins as her son. She takes one look at him in the film as he steps off the train and says, that's not Walter.
Nonsense, says the L.A. police captain in charge of missing children (Jeffrey Donovan of TV's "Burn Notice"), you know how fast boys change at that age. In effect, he forces her to take the boy home for a trial spin -- this boy who insists he's Walter Collins.
Traumatized by crushed expectation, she's talked into taking him home. She feeds him and puts him in the tub.
And notices that this kid is circumcised (Walter wasn't.) She marches him right over to the wall where she's been marking her son's growth spurts.
This "Walter" is three inches SHORTER than her son was the morning of his disappearance.
At this point, madness takes over. Walter's old school teacher for more than a year says, nope, that's not Walter. So does Walter's dentist -- those are definitely not Walter's teeth.
The cops keep saying, bosh, it's all part of a movement to discredit them -- a clear product of female hysteria.
And finally, when Christine Collins becomes too adamant about their continuing to search for her still missing son, they throw her into the psychiatric ward with all the rest of the "disturbed" women who've made trouble for the cops.
It's the film's basis in fact that's walloping. How on earth against a mother and everyone else, did they keep insisting the right kid had been found?
As with so many true stories, it's outrageous and more than a little ridiculous. Turn it 90 degrees in one direction and you've got a screwball comedy. Turn it 90 degrees in another opposite direction and you've got a horror movie.
Eventually, it turns out during her "hospitalization" that not far away in Wineville, Calif., a runaway boy confessed to helping a local farmer kidnap and murder up to 20 missing boys. But is her son one of them?
At this point, "Changeling" does indeed resemble a horror movie.
But it's essentially a feminist melodrama directed, with remarkable particulars, by Eastwood, who's turned into a formidably no-nonsense movie storyteller. (One wondrous detail relished by Eastwood in passing: female telephone company supervisors in 1928 moved up and down banks of operators on roller skates.)
Underlying the story is the simple ability of authorities in 1928 to consider all troublesome women "crazy" and, therefore, subject to anything they jolly pleased to do with them.
That's the first movie you watch in "Changeling" and it's a weird and near-great one.
But the movie then turns in its second half into as masculine a feminist tale as you can imagine. In its second half, we watch the consequences of the madness of hubris in L.A.'s cops, as if old Clint -- the former mayor of Carmel, Calif. -- is telling the part of the story that really interests him, i.e. how corrupt power gets its comeuppance.
He never forgets that there may be a missing little boy still to be found by a mother who never relents. It's just that he's so deeply in the world of governmental hearings and trials that in one scene -- as the LAPD's hierarchy is neatly disposed of by a committee -- we see a smug, fleeting (and to me, very disturbing) smile on the face of Christine Collins, a woman still supposedly overtaken by the desire for her son's return.
The story is the story. Clint, as he's been proving of late, doesn't gild any lilies. He sticks to what happened as much as he can.
Feminist melodrama in the second half of the film melts into dramatized California history.
And I can't help wondering if there wasn't another direction entirely for that second half to have gone -- inside this woman whose emotions are being battered by every possible side. What in God's name was going on with her throughout the big public denouement?
We never know. Clint's not so interested in that tale. He's got the public world of governments and pomaded men in striped suits to worry about, not to mention a "where's Walter?" suspense story to tell.
Jolie is fine in the most deglamourized role she's ever had. Courtesy of '20s flapper hats and hairdo and wildly unflattering photography, the film almost succeeds, at times, in making her look ugly. When her clothes come off, it is only to show Christine Collins brutalized by the business end of a fire hose before her lockup in the psych ward.
Apart from her unstoppable drive to find her missing son, no matter what, she remains a noble enigma from beginning to end which, frankly, I found weird and even unsettling by film's end.
Maybe it's none of my business, but I think it wouldn't hurt Clint Eastwood to get to know a few more female screenwriters.
Three stars (out of four)
Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore in Clint Eastwood's movie based on the true tale of a mother in '20s Los Angeles who fights the cops to find her missing 9-year old son.
Rated R for language and some violence, opening Friday in area theaters.