The term “Oscar bait” derives its meaning from films such as Changeling. Working from a script that touches on heart-wrenching, tear-jerking themes—and one that castigates a period of paternalism and corruption that nearly everyone can feel good about castigating—Clint Eastwood, the Oscar-winning director of Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven, directs Changeling, which stars tabloid-fixation Angelina Jolie, an Oscar-winner, too (Girl, Interrupted).

It’s funny, then, that toward the end of the film, Jolie’s character listens to the 1935 Oscars on the radio, hoping and praying that her pick—It Happened One Night—wins. “C’mon, c’mon,” she implores. Is this an attempt to subliminally program the voting members of the academy? Or to openly beg?

Changeling is not an excellent film and, if it wins, it would be a travesty, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 2007 victory of The Departed or the 2006 win for Crash. Alas, as of yet, the field this year is weak, with Space Chimps and Beverly Hills Chihuahua both in discussion as possible dark horse Best Picture contenders. (Changeling’s visual design, on the other hand, should be an early favorite in that category.)

But Changeling does tell a powerful—in fact torturous—story, and it’s nearly impossible not to be moved by it, to tears or to suicide. Meticulously researched by screenwriter J Michael Straczynski, it explores two little-remembered but infamous-at-the-time interconnected stories.

First, it tackles the “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders,” in which, back in the late 1920s, some 20-odd boys were caged in chicken coops (and, if you know any vegans, you know that those are monstrous conditions), molested, tortured and hacked to death with axes in the southern California town of Wineville, Calif. Soon after, Wineville, in an early and wise bit of municipal rebranding, switched its name to Mira Loma. Chickens asked to be called poultry.

But the primary narrative is of Christine Collins (Jolie), a single mother and telephone operator who comes home to find her son not there, a possible victim, it’s later thought, of Gordon Northcott, resident of the aforementioned chicken ranch. The police, ever corrupt in prohibition-era Los Angeles and eager for a happy ending, reunite Mrs. Collins with her son, with the only hiccup being that the boy is not hers.

Wishing to avoid embarrassment, a self-serving Captain (Jeffrey Donovan) attempts to convince Collins that, flooded in female emotions, she is confused. Hysterical, perhaps. When she doesn’t acquiesce, the captain has her committed. In the asylum, she is tormented by sadistic orderlies (as if there were any other type). Eventually, aided by activist preacher Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), her case becomes a public scandal and brings to light the bad behavior of the LAPD, which, thankfully, never returned.

Child murder and maddening wrongful imprisonment, as it’s said on the streets: This shit is fucked up. And, though it is powerful and does feel quite a bit shorter than 144 minutes, Changeling’s force is attenuated by several somewhat slim characterizations (Jolie: bereaved, enraged or defiantly placid; Malkovich: invoking an inflection that can only be described as “Malkovichy;” Jason Butler Harner as the killer: cartoonish, overwrought) and by a too-clean story arc and several too-cheesy moments that, combined with the attention paid to the visual details of suffering, smacks of exploitation, convenient simplification and soft-mindedness.

Changeling is definitively Oscar bait. It could have been a great film, though, had Eastwood simply reeled it in a bit.

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by J Michael Straczynski
With Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner and Eddie Alderson

Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14
141 min., R