by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here are a few ways to tell that a movie is great. A sure-fire sign is if, when you get up at the end of it, your back and legs and arms hurt. That means you haven't been shifting around in your seat: You've been so enthralled that you haven't moved.

Clint Eastwood's newest film runs almost two and a half hours, but you likely won't shift around. It features a riveting story and a castful of amazing performances. There's no doubt in my mind that it will garner Oscar nominations for script, director, film and actress, and there's little doubt that it will go home with some gold.

Eastwood has been a working actor for more than 50 years; he has been directing for almost 40. While his early efforts were shaky but watchable, over the past two decades, he has morphed into a master director, with lots of hits (Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby) and only a couple of misses (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Blood Work).

Changeling -- with Angelina Jolie strutting the acting stuff she showed off as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, surrounded by character actor-types who know how to steal scenes as well as blend right in while others step forward -- is one of those films that cements Eastwood's reputation. Not only does he have great insight on what makes a good movie -- he has the know-how to pull it all off.

Set in late-1920s Los Angeles, and referred to at the end of the opening credits as, simply, "a true story," it tells of single mom Christine Collins (Jolie) and her 9-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), who are very close and have managed to weather Dad's walking out on them long ago. But one day when Christine comes home from work, Walter is gone. The police aren't interested in her worried phone call, suggesting that Walter will surely come back tomorrow. But he doesn't.

Jolie's smooth transformation from happy, loving mom to anxious, distressed mom is the first hint of where she's going to take this character. Things ramp up emotionally, then take some very bizarre turns, when, some five months later, the L.A. police (at the time beleaguered for being both corrupt and inept) tell her that Walter has been found in Illinois and is being brought home. But when the train pulls into the station, and a young boy gets off, all she can say is, "That's not my son."

That's definitely not the response that Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) wants to hear, and instead of saying, "We'll find your boy," he quietly tells the distressed mom that "Walter" has been through an ordeal and has changed. Then he shifts his tone and tells her she should take him on a trial basis, at which point most viewers should be thinking, "What?"

The film turns into a series of different stories, all connected to Christine and the boy who, to her consternation, keeps calling her "Mummy." The police, with their already tarnished reputation, can't afford another screw-up; and plot complications involving a radio evangelist (John Malkovich) and a serial murderer ensue.

Eastwood and TV script writer J. Michael Straczynski keep a tight rein on all of this plotting, turning it into a thrilling and entertaining mix. Eastwood throws in an occasional mood-setting flashback, and manages to coax his actors into giving excellent performances: Donovan as the police captain, Michael Kelly as a detective, Geoffrey Pierson as a firebrand lawyer, and Jason Butler Harner and Amy Ryan as mental ward prisoners are all standouts. Eastwood has also composed another exquisite score to complement the ambience of the story.

This is an unrelentingly powerful film, up there with the best that Eastwood has directed. It's a terrific piece of work to get caught up in, and it's worth the little pain you might have to endure from being so riveted by it.


Rated R

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, John Malkovich

Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival @ Gonzaga University Jepson Center

Jan. 28-Feb. 5
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