Million Dollar Baby: Some Thoughts

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First I have a confession to make. I generally like Clint Eastwood’s work. He’s a good storyteller, whose filmic work is usually deliciously understated, and he operates with a sensibility towards an underlying morality at play in the universe. His quietness is more in keeping with real life than the clamoring noise characterizing so much storytelling today and he tends to understand nuance. I also like Hillary Swank’s work and her casting in Million Dollar baby is spot on. Morgan Freeman’s counterfoil to Eastwood’s character, and his narration give the storyline gravity and allows Eastwood’s philosophical statements to be blended in like an additive.

A lot of religious conservatives are up in arms about this film and in order for me to react to the film and their concerns I must warn you, there is a spoiler in this film so don’t read the rest unless you are prepared to miss the impact of a slow meandering towards the finale in a heartbreaking plot line.

Here is ther studio’s summary: [Frankie Dunn (CLINT EASTWOOD) has trained and managed some incredible fighters during a lifetime spent in the ring. The most important lesson he teaches his boxers is the one that rules his life: above all, always protect yourself. In the wake of a painful estrangement from his daughter, Frankie has been unwilling to let himself get close to anyone for a very long time. His only friend is Scrap (MORGAN FREEMAN), an ex-boxer who looks after Frankie’s gym and knows that beneath his gruff exterior is a man who has attended Mass almost every day for the past 23 years, seeking the forgiveness that somehow continues to elude him.

Then Maggie Fitzgerald (HILARY SWANK) walks into his gym.

Maggie’s never had much, but there is one thing she does have that very few people in this world ever do: she knows what she wants and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get it. In a life of constant struggle, Maggie’s gotten herself this far on raw talent, unshakable focus and a tremendous force of will. But more than anything, what she wants is for someone to believe in her.

The last thing Frankie needs is that kind of responsibility ¢€œ let alone that kind of risk. He tells Maggie the blunt hard truth: she’s too old and he doesn’t train girls. But ¢â‚¬Ëœno’ has little meaning when you have no other choice. Unwilling or unable to give up on her life’s ambition, Maggie wears herself to the bone at the gym every day, encouraged only by Scrap. Finally won over by Maggie’s sheer determination, Frankie begrudgingly agrees to take her on.

In turns exasperating and inspiring each other, the two come to discover that they share a common spirit that transcends the pain and loss of their pasts, and find in each other a sense of family they lost long ago. What they don’t know is that soon they will both face a battle that’s going to demand more heart and courage than any they’ve ever known.]

Now here is the spoiler. In a sudden plot twist Maggie’s spinal cord is shattered in her title fight and after fighting what is sure to be a losing battle in the hospital, Maggie asks Frankie for a final act of love, the taking of her own life, a mercy killing.

This is a well made film and Hollywood has responded with seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture along with acting nominations for the film’s three principal characters. The characters are developed well and Frankie is revealed to be a conflicted man, seeking forgiveness, sparring with his priest, given to caution and averse to risk-taking. Boxing is placed in a construct prone to counterintuitive thinking which is a useful set-up for the choice Frankie will make in the end. “Boxing is an unnatural act because everything in it is backwards.” “Some wounds are too deep or too close to the bone and no matter how hard you try you can’t stop the bleeding.”

Ultimately my beef with the film transcends the moral choice Frankie makes and goes rather to the lack of integrity in the storyline and the sophomoric dialogue that is in such sharp contrast to the depth of thought leading up to the critical final scenes.

Eastwood’s films explore nuance through metaphor (such as the boxing ones above) but as Frankie wrestles with this moral dilemma we have lame dialogue with a priest with inanities about it “being a sin to keep her alive,” “She’s not asking for God’s help she’s asking for mine.” When in doubt about the nature of love throw in some Gaelic. “Mo cuishle.” It means “my darling. My blood.”,

When in doubt about the nature of the afterlife? (hers as she dies, his as he helps her die), draw on Yeats.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Setting aside the improbability of Frankie going undetected as he disconnects the monitoring devices in an intensive care unit, the shallowness of the moral dialogue and treatment of euthanasia is not equal to the brilliant dialogue about boxing in the first half of the film.

It is probable that where Eastwood’s other morality plays succeed because they draw on the deep underlying “one true myth,” when he heads into the murky waters of assisted suicide he has not found the taproots to the deeper truths, and many would argue that he cannot find them because they are not there.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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    Posted in Staublog in February 16, 2005 by | No Comments »

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