Million Dollar Baby. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel. 137 minutes. Rated PG-13.
By Steve Drake
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That's what really bothers me about Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby: The movie pulled me in until the last half hour, in spite of the clichés and uneven acting.
For those of you have missed the hype, Million Dollar Baby is the story of Frankie, an aging "cut man" (Clint Eastwood) who doubles as trainer and manager for aspiring boxers. He becomes the reluctant trainer of a too-old and enthusiastic "hillbilly" named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Morgan Freeman plays "Scrap," an ex-boxer whose last fight left him blind in one eye. The loss of vision is something Frankie feels responsible for and believes is a great tragedy (but he never bothers to ask Scrap how he feels about it).
There's a caricature of a person with cognitive disabilities in the movie, too. Played by Jay Baruchel, "Danger's" only function seems to be to show us how nice Scrap and Frankie are for tolerating his presence at Frankie's gym and how cruel the rest of the world is.
Where was I?
The plot's predictable. Even someone like me, unfamiliar with boxing movies, can figure out what's coming next. Maggie shows up at Frankie's gym and starts to train. Frankie ignores her. Scrap, impressed with her dedication, quietly gives her encouragement. Frankie rants several times about how he doesn't train "girls." Nevertheless, to no one's surprise, he slowly becomes involved in her training and ends up managing and promoting her.
Frankie finds a substitute daughter in Maggie. During a car ride, she tells Frankie about her dad's dog, who dragged his hindquarters around and how she and her brother laughed at the dog. Her dad, ill and with little time left to live, takes the dog out for one final ride, and only Dad comes back. (More on this later.)
I guess I should also mention that Frankie is a practicing Catholic who goes to church every day. It's not really clear why he does this, since mostly he yanks the chain of the priest with questions, not looking for answers, just looking to irritate.
WARNING: We're about to reveal the Surprise Ending!
To make a long series of fights short, Maggie finally gets her shot at the championship. She appears to demolish her opponent, but makes the mistake of turning her back on her when she's down. The other boxer comes up and hits her, knocking Maggie to the floor. Maggie's head hits a bench on the way down, and apparently snaps her neck.
Next scene: the hospital. Maggie tells Frankie she's a "complete C1 C2" and that she'll be "frozen like this the rest of my life." Roger Ebert, in a review of the movie, calls the scriptwriter's choice of the word "frozen" "the single perfect word that expresses what a thousand could not." More on Ebert and his comrades later.
During the course of Maggie's treatment and rehab, she develops pressure sores which are treated as inevitable and unrelated to quality of care. One becomes so bad that her leg has to be amputated.
Frankie manages everything for Maggie. He gets her into a rehab facility (looks like a high-end nursing home); he finds courses for her to take at City College.
Turns out Maggie doesn't want any of it. She doesn't want to live like this, she tells him. All she ever wanted to be was a boxer and she got that. She had fans; she was on the covers of magazines. She doesn't want to get to the point where she can't even remember living her dream any more.
As I listened to this drivel, I wondered how Muhammed Ali, whose speech and ability to move are significantly limited by Parkinson's, might react to this. Or his family, for that matter.
Maggie asks Frankie to do what her dad did for the dog.
Reality-check time: In Maggie's story, there is no suggestion that the dog was suffering or wanted to die. Maggie and her brother laughed at the way he "flopped" to get around, though. It's pretty likely Dad's motivation in killing the dog was that he couldn't count on anyone to care for it after he couldn't do it himself any more.
Frankie prays. He talks to a couple of people. He decides to "help" Maggie, even though he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to be "selfish" in keeping her alive. He sneaks in to the rehab facility in the middle of the night. No guards, no locks, no alarms. He wakes Maggie up and tells her he will do what she wants. He'll shut off the ventilator, she'll fall asleep and then he'll inject her with something so she "will stay asleep." We hear Scrap's voice, telling us the substance is "adrenaline." Yep, that was the sequence: Turn the vent off first, then inject with a stimulant. This is, in reality, a recipe for an agonizing death, combining suffocation with your heart feeling like it will explode.
Reality-check Time II
This movie is set in contemporary times, yet the only place she can live is a glorified nursing home? This expensive care still results in a level of skin breakdown so severe it requires amputation? No locks on the door at night? No guard? No alarm? No warning buzzer when the equipment is shut off or Maggie's heart stops?
Anything wrong with this script?
Reality-check Time III
Frankie allegedly "helps" Maggie because she can't do it herself. Bullshit. We can assume, just from seeing the cars on the street in the movie, that this is post-1990. All Maggie has to do to die is to ask. No kidding. Court rulings in the 90s say that a person who uses a vent can request the vent be shut off, and the staff will give them a sedative and shut the vent off just as they start to lose consciousness.
It's that simple. It's already all legal. We've seen it play out too many times already in real life.
So what's this "Frankie helps Maggie die" about? Why is it part of the script?
The near-universal adoration of critics
Eastwood released Baby with an eye on the Oscars, opening in December so it could compete for the 2004 awards. The National Society of Film Critics has just named it best picture of the year. It did well in the "director" and "actors" categories, too.
A quick check of the Rotten Tomatoes website revealed only three negative reviews out of over a hundred listed.
Most professional reviewers have raved about Baby, but I'll focus on Roger Ebert. Ebert may be the most well-known movie critic in America. He also writes for the Chicago Sun-Times here where I live and work. This makes Ebert both a national and local "problem." (Chicago has another well-known critic, Richard Roeper, but no one is surprised when he's this shallow. He called the execrable United States of Leland "powerful stuff.")
Ebert calls Million Dollar Baby his no. 1 movie pick of the year. Guess he didn't notice -- or didn't care about -- any of the manipulation or plot holes, especially relating to the ending:
What else it is, all it is, how deep it goes, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death. This is the best film of the year. (Read review.)
Ebert thinks he "gets" disability. He's participated in a couple of fundraising events for a local disability advocacy organization here in Chicago. And a couple of his reviews have shown some sensitivity about disability. Here's a snippet from his review of The Other Sister:
The Other Sister is shameless in its use of mental retardation as a gimmick, a prop and a plot device. Anyone with any knowledge of retardation is likely to find the film offensive. It treats the characters like cute little performing seals . . . " (Read review.)
The same could be said for Baby's cartoonish character "Danger." But apparently Ebert was so enthralled with the movie that he didn't look at the use of mental retardation with the critical eye he applied to Sister. Like so many people outside of our community who feel that they've finally "gotten it" about disability, Ebert, it appears, doesn't think he needs to learn any more -- even when the audience is being asked to look at the murder/suicide of a disabled person as a deep, emotionally satisfying experience.
Nor does Ebert question the authenticity of the onslaught of medical complications besetting Maggie, or the quality of her care, or the plausibility of Frankie sneaking unnoticed into a facility in the middle of the night.
Ebert and his colleagues also seem unaware that all someone in Maggie's situation need do is ask that their vent get shut off. Didn't any of them read the biography of their friend Chris Reeve? He talked about it. Of course, Reeve never went so far as to have his vent turned off. So it probably never registered with any of them.
Another thing that critics probably weren't aware of is Clint Eastwood's long battle against the Americans with Disabilities Act. Eastwood has been at the forefront of efforts to weaken the ADA by building in a requirement that businesses be notified 90 days before being sued for inaccessibility, even though they've been supposed to be accessible since 1992.
Kinda puts a different spin on things, doesn't it? Imagine this piece of dialogue at Maggie's bedside:
"I'm tired of staying in this room, Frankie."
"Well, I'd take you to my resort, but I haven't made any of the guest rooms accessible yet as a matter of principle. Maybe I could order us some take-out."
The cynic in me says that maybe the most accurate label we can put on this movie is "Clint Eastwood's Revenge." Hey, if we kill 'em, we don't have to make our resorts accessible!
This movie is a corny, melodramatic assault on people with disabilities. It plays out killing as a romantic fantasy and gives emotional life to the "better dead than disabled" mindset lurking in the heart of the typical (read: nondisabled) audience member.
That's the truth and we need to deal with it. It explains why movies such as Whose Life is it, Anyway? become immensely popular. It explains why The Sea Inside was such a hit with critics. These are the stories about disability that society wants to believe are true. And critics are part of society.
These films don't reflect the typical disability experience, which, for most of us, is just the experience of living our lives. Books and movies about our simple struggle to live life in an oppressive society receive little notice from the public, press or critics. It's only when a disabled person, real or fictional, says they want to die that the movie becomes a hit, the book a bestseller.
It's going to be a long, hard, cold year in the movies. We're lucky U. S. audiences don't have much interest in subtitled movies or we'd be dealing with a double whammy right now with The Sea Inside.
But hold on! A filmmaker is working on a feature film of the life of Jack Kevorkian she hopes to release this year. And we've been contacted by still another filmmaker planning a documentary on Kevorkian; she's hoping for a release date this year as well.
Talk about living in dangerous times.
Posted Jan. 11, 2005
Steve Drake is Research Analyst for Not Dead Yet. Read his article, From 'mercy killing' to 'domestic violence': Shirley Harrison, the Chicago Media and Not Dead Yet.
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