I’ve always found "based on a true story" to be an odd phrase, as normally things are either true or false, whereas it is a uniquely Hollywood proposition to proclaim something as factual while still fudging details to make it more entertaining. Even stranger to do so when the true stories in question are sometimes more unlikely than anything that the overworked screenwriters could have thought of.
Such is the case with two movies from Universal that came out on DVD recently, Changeling and Flash of Genius, both of which not only share the "true story" designation, but also share a rough theme of one person standing up against The Man and winning. Although one is quite a bit of a better movie than the other.
Changeling is a story so bizarre that someone couldn’t make it up if they were paid to do so. Angelina Jolie (nominated for an Oscar here, rightly so) stars as Christine Collins, a phone operator in 1928 with a young son and no husband. One day she goes to work and is forced to leave little Edward at home without a sitter, and when she returns he’s gone without a trace. The LAPD, already known for their corruption and lazy policework, immediately begin stonewalling her and won’t even investigate until the child has been missing for 24 hours. Once they decide to begin looking, the boy is long gone and Christine quickly loses hope…until three months later, when they find him halfway across the country with a drifter. Or so we think, as Christine is totally unconvinced that the boy (who is three inches shorter than her son and also circumcised) is actually her son. Captain Jones of the LAPD callously tells her to take him home on a "trial basis" because the police department can ill-afford any more public relations problems, but once Christine decides to fight back against the gross negligence and incompetent police-work, problems escalate fast. The police are basically unwilling to pursue the search any further because they consider the child to be "found", and the captain has Christine thrown into a mental institution because she is being "obstinate" and thus obviously has mental problems. In an interesting departure for a movie like this, we learn what actually did happen, and it provides no happy ending for the mother or the movie. Changeling, as directed by Clint Eastwood, makes no efforts to trick the viewer into thinking that Collins really was crazy or was anything but the victim of a gross injustice. And while the answer to the disappearance ties into one of the most gruesome and sensational crime stories of the early 20th century, the movie surprisingly veers far away from the horrifying details, instead choosing to focus solely on the fight by Christine Collins to have her voice heard. It’s a bit of a daring decision in a market that would normally go for the easy route by doing a "cop chasing a serial killer" movie with this material and it pays off spectacularly. That being said, the last half hour of the movie don’t feel particularly needed, as the story pretty much wraps up at the two hour mark and you’re kind left wondering "What more could they possibly say here?" Unfortunately the answer is "not much", as the movie devolves into something of a dull courtroom procedural. In fact much of the movie is pretty dull stuff from an artistic standpoint, preferring to make its case on the performance of Jolie and the strength of the source material (in this case, too-strange-to-be-fiction courtroom transcripts detailing the abuses suffered by Christine Collins and the attitude of the police department about them). A thoroughly engrossing and satisfying movie that will have you feeling mad at the system, in a good way. (Rating: ****1/2)
In terms of bonus features, Changeling feels as Spartan as the direction, with only a pair of short featurettes about Eastwood’s laid-back direction style and the amazing screenplay from J. Michael Staczynski (which apparently was so out-there that the studio demanded factual evidence be submitted with the script before it would clear legal), plus one about Angelina’s transformation into Christine Collins. The great work by the production designers is also highlighted here, and this movie is a great example of how difficult, yet utterly convincing, it can be to recreate an era like it does.
Slightly less impressive to me was the other half of my true-story double-header, Flash of Genius, with ever-charming Greg Kinnear starring as inventor/professor Robert Kearns, who invented the intermittent windshield wiper in 1964 and proceeded on a strange journey for the rest of his life. The story itself shouldn’t make for a captivating performance — a man sees rain on his windshield and thinks "Hey, how come wipers don’t have a setting between On and Off?", takes that idea to Ford, gets screwed out of his idea, fights back — but Kearns is just so dogged about the whole thing that it’s like he wills a two-hour movie out of the whole thing by sheer force of stubborn determination. And it’s kind of tough to truly sympathize with him, because along the path of his 20-year legal battle with Ford he managed to lose his wife, family, job and sanity, all in the name of ensuring that he received the credit that he felt he deserved. It wasn’t even about the money, as Ford offered him anywhere from $300,000 to $30,000,000 along the way to shut him up, but ultimately the recognition was what he truly craved. That being said, it can be a very frustrating character to center a movie on, because there’s many points where I was practically yelling at the screen for him to take the damn money already and go back to living his happy life, instead of letting his obsession ruin him. The movie doesn’t presume to judge him for those actions or tell us what to think, either, which was a nice touch. Unfortunately that focused approach doesn’t work as well here as it does on Changeling, as we’re left wondering about the other people orbiting his planet of obsession. His estranged wife, former best friend, even his children are merely props in the tragedy that is Kearns’ battle in what appears to be an unwinnable war. It would have been nice to learn more about their perspective on Kearns and his dream, instead of yet another scene of him testing his wipers or turning down reasonable offers of compensation. And I know that sympathizing with the main character isn’t necessary to enjoy a story, but the moment he told Ford that he wanted to manufacture his own wipers despite having no experience, I decided he was too stubborn for his own good and never really got on-board with his battle for the Little Guy. Yes, it’s wonderful that the common person CAN stand up to big corporations in the legal battlefield and triumph over their hundreds of lawyers, but sometimes it’s best not to. At least, given the price that he paid in the end, that’s the lesson I took away from this movie. (Rating: ****)
For special features, again it’s a smaller release with smaller features, as you get a commentary with director Marc Abraham, and 3 minutes of deleted scenes, also with commentary.
So both movies well worth checking out this time around, and both are presented almost entirely true to the real-life occurrences. I liked Changeling a bit more, but Flash of Genius is a fascinating study of a slightly crazed genius and your enjoyment will probably hinge on how much you side with the main character. Either way, give them a look.
Tags: angelina jolie, Clint Eastwood, Greg Kinnear, SmarK Rants, Universal