Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother—competent, responsible, and devoted to her nine-year-old son Walter—who works as a switchboard supervisor in Los Angeles. She returns home from a weekend shift in early 1928 to discover that Walter has vanished. A nationwide search is launched, but to no avail, until a child claiming to be Walter Collins surfaces in Illinois six months later. He is returned to Christine, who immediately recognizes that the boy is not her son. Broken-hearted, confused, and manipulated by a shifty police force unwilling to recognize its mistake in front of the press, she allows herself to be persuaded to take the boy home on a "trial basis."
Becoming increasingly certain that the police have simply made a mistake, Christine protests and persists in requesting that they re-open her case and continue to search for Walter. But the Los Angeles Police Department of the time—embattled, inept, rotting from the inside out—recognizes that she represents a potential public relations nightmare for them, and goes to great lengths to paint Christine as a bad, irresponsible, and mentally disturbed woman. She fights back with the help of Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who has made it his mission to expose what he calls from the pulpit "the most violent, corrupt, and incompetent police department this side of the Rockies." But in this society, women who stand up against corrupt authority were not smiled upon, and things get much worse for Christine before they get better.
Meanwhile, a detective on a simple deportation case stumbles across a teenager who tells a sickening tale with potentially explosive implications, and as the case unfolds, the city is rocked to its core. As the cases dovetail, the justice system is forced to confront its problems, inequities, and injustices—but in ways nobody is expecting.
Based closely on a true story, there's a lot in Changeling to remind us that the "good old days" weren't necessarily so good. Even (and especially) by today's standards, the crimes committed in Wineville are heinous and disturbing, but that seems almost mild compared to the treatment of innocent citizens, and especially women, by the LAPD at the time. Amy Ryan, in a short but brilliant turn as a "lady of the night" who crossed a police officer, tells Christine that "everyone knows women are fragile; if we're insane, nobody has to listen to us." Halfway through the film, I scribbled down that I was reminded why the feminist movement was necessary—one can hardly imagine a police department today operating with immunity under such unbridled and unchecked misogyny, or a woman who would not be willing to put up a fight. (Of course, today, such a police force would be accountable to a simple DNA test.)
This is the kind of movie that automatically garners Oscar buzz: an emotional, dramatic period piece, with a celebrated director and strong performances. Christine has little of the sexpot we're used to from Jolie, and so her performance is especially haunting as a strong, independent woman who nevertheless is a product of her time. Malkovich, as a feisty minister who is completely in touch with the problems in his wider community, is a refreshing and inspiring kind of preacher to see on the big screen. Director Clint Eastwood was born in 1930 and grew up around southern California, making him one of the few working directors today who can actually remember the older LA depicted in the film. It's to good effect; this Los Angeles feels spot-on, down to the cable cars.