Movies

When Perhaps You Actually Really Can't Handle The Truth

scissors

hide captionTrimming the truth: How do you cut a true story when it's just a little long?

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Reading the piece by Kenneth Turan about truth in movies, I found myself thinking about Changeling. (Which, as Trey just said, has been out in some places for a week, but rolls out more widely today.)

There were things I liked about Changeling, especially in the early going. The introduction of the basic problem, in which Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returns from work to find her son gone, has an undeniably impressive tension — not that child endangerment is exactly the most difficult route to an emotional payoff.

But by the end of the movie, I was totally alienated from it, and when I left, I sent a friend a text message that said, "Movies not to see: Changeling."

How they lost me, and what it has to do with true stories, after the jump...

The problem with the late stages of Changeling is simple: the movie becomes endless. The final hour is a series of false endings, where every ten minutes or so, it seems that the proceedings are winding down, and then...they fail to wind down. Some critics took note of the problem — it's very well explained in A.O. Scott's New York Times review, which says:

At around the 90-minute mark, all of the considerable tension and suspense drain away, and if the film ended at that point, you might walk away shaken and perhaps stunned. But when you look at your watch, you discover that almost an hour remains, during which the film lurches from one stagy set piece and from one genre to another, losing its focus and coherence in the process. The pervasive overacting makes less and less sense and becomes more and more annoying.

Exactly.

And, leaving the theater, I said to the friend who saw the movie with me, "My guess is that most of the things in that last hour really happened, because if they hadn't, any decent screenwriter and director would have concluded that a lot of it needed to be cut." If you can trust Wikipedia, most of it did really happen. (Warning: Don't read the Wikipedia article, of course, unless you want to know the last 500 or so plot developments in the movie, which is two and a half hours long and feels twice that.)

So what is a moviemaker to do? When a true story is so convoluted that a faithful retelling feels like a shaggy-dog story, how do you avoid the feeling that you are telling a convoluted shaggy-dog story? Certainly, more could have been done about the "pervasive overacting" Scott describes. (Quoth my pal after the screening: "If I saw one more artfully arranged tear on Angelina Jolie's cheek..")

But some true stories simply make unwieldy movies. A good bit of footage here could have been chucked in favor of adding those points to the inevitable wrap-up screens telling viewers what eventually happened, but problems would remain. A distracting One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest sequence in the middle; one too many similar scenes in which a wicked authority figure openly plots against Christine; more screaming than any one script can carry on its back. There's just too...much.

It's an interesting problem. Cut the story off in the middle? Leave things out? Just make it extremely long and hope people are patient? It's a challenge only true stories face in quite this way, because as I said to my friend, a good director and editor would have trimmed Christine Collins' very sad story to make it a little less sprawling.

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