Peace through victory - the American way.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

My two cents on million dollar baby.

This year's Oscar controversy involves Clint Eastwood's genre puncturing movie, "Million Dollar Baby." (If you still haven't seen the movie and don't want to know anything about its plot twist, STOP READING NOW.) The movie has become a battlefield in America's so-called Culture Wars between social conservatives and anti-conservatives because of the movie's depiction of a mercy killing and because the advertising sold the movie as a boxing movie, when it's not.

I must admit that I liked the movie until its final scenes. Eastwood's directing style is perfect for this story. His directing is static and upon reflection the movie feels like a play. Much of the action takes place in a gym, the stage where the actors perform. This has the effect of shining the spotlight on the acting and the characters and drawing the viewer into the story. Hilary Swank's acting is the heart of this movie with her portrayal of the strong-willed, tomboyish yet pretty, sincere Maggie Fitzgerald. The image that remains in the mind long after the movie is over is Maggie's, and Swank deserves recognition for this.

The story itself is not that interesting, for the most part, as it tracks by the numbers the rise of a female wannabe boxing star, played by Swank. We watch her overcome the benign sexism of Frankie Dunn, a crusty old gym owner and boxing trainer played by Eastwood, as she charms him into becoming her trainer by her dogged persistence. Then we get the obligatory montage shots of her training and the series of vignettes showing her meteoric rise to the top through knockout after knockout. Over all this, we hear the soothing narrative voiceover of Morgan Freeman, who plays Scrap, a former boxer client of Frankie's and his lifelong friend. And through it all we are shown the world of the boxing gym where the sport strips people down to their core so their character is revealed for all to see and where a person can find out what he or she is made of. As the sign in the gym, which appears in the background of many shots in this part of the movie, says "Winners will do what losers won't."

For 100 minutes or so the movie safely explores the territory of the underdog champion genre and the triumph of will. Then Maggie's neck is broken in a title fight and she becomes paralyzed from the neck down and ends up helpless in a hospital bed, hooked up to a respirator because she can't even breathe on her own. The final 35 minutes are where all the action is and where the movie ultimately fails.

In those final minutes it's all downhill for Maggie and Frankie. As Maggie pleads for him to end her life, he seeks counsel from his priest, and from his best friend on what to do. Then, at the very end, he kills Maggie with an overdose of adrenalin that stops her strongly beating heart.

What is to be applauded about this movie is the same thing that offends. It's a tribute to the movie's creators that they chose to make a movie that busts through the cliches of genre and explores real life consequences. What is not a tribute to this movie is the single-dimensional way it frames the question of what to do about Maggie and how it cops out in the end.

Throughout the movie we have been shown that the only thing Maggie finds worth living for is boxing. The father she loves is long dead. All that's left of her family are white trash, exemplified by her welfare cheating mother. When Maggie comes into some money she buys her mother a house only to have the mother complain that owning the home will cause her to lose "my welfare." When Maggie is lying paralyzed in her bed her family comes to convince her to sign away her assets to them. Her mom goes so far as to put the pen in Maggie's mouth so she can sign.

Maggie's condition is awful. She has bed sores, she loses a leg due to gangrene, she's utterly helpless and she is a shell of her former self. All that is left is her indomitable will, but for this fight she has turned that will to suicide. After biting her own tongue so severely she almost bleeds to death the medical staff must sedate her to keep her alive.

Weighed against the awfulness of Maggie's existence and her will to die, is Frankie's relationship with his priest. That relationship is barely developed in the movie even though we are told that Frankie has attended Mass with this priest every day for 23 years. All we see of it in the first part of the movie are a few scenes. The first two scenes are jokes. Frankie, apparently a lifelong Catholic, is seen asking the priest first about the doctrine of the Trinity and later about the Immaculate Conception. These are questions that no longer trouble the typical long time Catholic.

The Immaculate Conception reference is a bad joke at that. Most non-Catholics think the term refers to the belief about the Virgin Birth and that Catholics believe Jesus' conception was immaculate because there was no sex involved. It plays into the whole uptight Catholic myth so the audience can snicker at that. In fact, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception maintains that Mary was conceived without the Original Sin of Adam and Eve on her soul. (Hey, Catholics don't call these things mysteries for nothing.)

There is one scene of significance between Frankie and his priest in the first part of the movie. That occurs when the priest hectors Frankie to write to his daughter, a grown woman alienated from her father by some event the movie never reveals. We learn that Frankie has been following the priest's advice for years with only failure to show for it. All his letters are returned to him unopened.

Thus, we wonder why Frankie bothers to seek the priest's advice about Maggie. His relationship with the priest is not significant, Frankie is a doubting and immature Catholic, and the one serious piece of advice the priest has given him is unrealistic. But he is a Catholic and when faced with a crisis a Catholic will seek the advice of his priest.

Yet the priest is in the movie to provide a straw man. The relationship is there only to provide a cheap foil when Frankie needs some real advice. The priest clearly cares but he says nothing to Frankie that is rooted in real life. The essence of his advice is to walk away from Maggie. Maggie, the woman who has become Frankie's surrogate daughter. As if Frankie could do that. He tells Frankie not to kill Maggie because if he does he will be lost forever. This might be true but it is not helpful because Frankie already feels lost and it is simplistic.

The movie would have done better to deal seriously with the moral dilemma facing Frankie by allowing the priest to give the more sophisticated answer found in the Catholic Church's teaching on euthanasia.

If it had, the priest would have told Frankie that it would be wrong to kill Maggie because every life has value, especially the lives of the disabled, who deserve special respect. That rather than helping Frankie to end her life she should be helped to live as normal a life as possible. The priest could also have helped Frankie understand that in some situations it can be appropriate to discontinue extraordinary medical procedures where the result is a natural death but that Maggie's decision to die should only be implemented if she made it while competent and able.

Of course a movie is not a debate and its characters aren't debaters. Writers often affirm their characters' independence and say that they will say and do things that the writer never intended. But "Million Dollar Baby" is not that kind of a movie. This movie is not a character-driven movie where unforeseen events happen because the character caused the plot to take a different turn than the author intended. This is a plot-driven movie that is carefully crafted to bring about the fate that Maggie suffers.

So instead the movie stacks the deck in favor of killing Maggie, and Scrap gives the speech that tells Frankie it's the right thing to do. Why? Because Maggie has reached the end of her meaningful life. Maggie, at least, unlike most has dared to live, dared to try, has succeeded, and known glory and the accomplishment of her dreams. It is right for her to die now because she has accomplished her life's dream.

The moral code of this movie is that of a warrior. It is better to fight and live in glory and die then, than it is to fade away into a mundane existence. It is also the easy way out.

The hard way and the human way would have been to let Maggie live. This movie could not do that because, to a warrior, Maggie's life as an invalid would have reduced her to the same moral level as the family she had risen above. She would no longer be the fighter showered in glory and making her own way in the world. She'd fall from the heights to live her life on disability (her own "welfare"), totally dependent on others, and unable to do the simplest things for herself. An object for pity rather than adulation.

"Million Dollar Baby" stares that prospect in the face and blinks. By blinking the movie descends into its own sentimentality and the final scenes are drenched in it. First we are shown that Scrap's voiceover narration has been a letter he is writing to Frankie's daughter so that she will know what her father is like and understand him. Then we see a gauzy image of Frankie through a window sitting hunched at a counter in a rural diner where he and Maggie had stopped once to eat. It's a diner Maggie had frequented as a child, and it's a place Frankie told her he would one day buy and retire to and find the peace he has not known. The only scene missing is a fast forward to Frankie's death and his reunification with Maggie in heaven. You have to give the movie credit for leaving that scene out.


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