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Grumpy grumpy me

So. Your Humble Blogger saw Million Dollar Baby the other day. And the rest of this column is about the plot twist, and its representations elsewhere. So if you want to be surprised by the twist—and I was, more or less, this would be a good time to stop reading. Or now. Before the start of the next paragraph, anyway. Certainly before following the link to Frank Rich’s column, How Dirty Harry Turned Commie.

The movie’s protagonist is Frankie Dunn, a boxing trainer/manager and cut-man who owns a run-down old gym. When we first get to know him, it’s clear that he’s a better cut-man than manager. He is seriously risk-averse; he refuses a title bout that his fighter might lose. The fighter, predictably, leaves him for a gutsier, more ambitious manager, leaving Frankie with just the gym. A ... spunky ... young woman named Maggie demands that Frankie train her as a boxer. He does, reluctantly. It turns out she’s great. They bond. He gets her a championship fight; she is winning when her opponent hits her with a cheap shot after the bell. She goes down, hits her head on the stool, cracks her spine (C2-C3, I think), and is permanently paralyzed. She, suicidal, pleads with him to kill her. He dithers for a bit, and then does. End of movie.

Now, it’s a seriously well-made movie. I found the emotional stuff powerfully moving, and even knowing there was a plot twist, I was surprised by it when it happened. The foreshadowing didn’t give it away (to me), but was enough that I thought back on it when it happened. Also, the writing brought out various aspects of Frankie’s character very nicely. His risk-aversion costs him his fighter. His only employee is an ex-fighter kept in penance for their youth, when his skill as cut-man kept the fighter in the ring long enough to lose an eye; this too feeds in to the themes of protection, risk, and responsibility. He attends Mass obsessively, passing off his religiosity by making a show of needling Father Straightman. He writes his estranged daughter every week, putting her through the grief of returning each letter, unopened. He offers unsolicited financial advice to his protégée, even snooping through her checkbook, and the advice is, unsurprisingly, to buy a house, cash in hand, no mortgage. He fears risk. He assumes responsibility. Eastwood, directing himself, makes use of his well-known face and mannerisms to hammer home the characters’ inflated sense of responsibility as well as his obsessive, magnificent commitment to upholding that responsibility.

Thus, when Maggie is paralyzed, there is no moment of decision, no struggle in his mind. He leaves all other work to take care of her, appearing to move in to the hospital and then the rehab center. She doesn’t (I think) thank him for it, nor does the viewer; we accept it. When her family appears, our fear is that she will foolishly choose her biological relatives rather than Frankie, who has assumed the role of father, protector and support. Of course, she sends them packing. Then, when she demands Frankie kill her, we see that his responsibility tears him in half. Breaking down, he says to his priest that he’s killing her by keeping her alive. He can’t fulfill his responsibility to protect her—to make up for his failure to protect her, in fact—without doing as she asks.

Except, of course, that he can. There is no inkling whatever in the movie that the woman is temporarily noncompos, and that her will is not binding under the circumstances. Let me add, by the way, that her family, who are portrayed as awful, vile people who have no love for her, come specifically to bilk her of her estate (although I have no idea how, or to what end, or if she makes a new and probably invalid will to disinherit them after the attempt, or what). And, of course, she goes from the championship fight to the wheelchair, losing her obsessive goal in an eyeblink. And yet, the only response of the medical staff to her suicidal depression is to sedate her to vegetation. The film doesn’t allow any alternatives to Frankie, and not (in my viewing) because he is blind to them, as he might well be, but because the filmmakers want us to be blind to them. Her life was boxing; a wheelchair-bound life is intolerable and death is a release. That’s it.

Now, to the political and ethical points, and I’d like to emphasize that they are different. First, we are currently working on under what circumstances, if any, it should be legal to assist someone in committing suicide, so by showing someone doing it without showing repercussions is a little, um, disingenuous. Legally, Frankie commits murder; nobody discusses any legal implications of that. Still, I suppose, it’s possible to claim that the movie should stimulate discussion of whether he made the right choice, and, if we assume that the right choice should be legal, change our views of the laws to accommodate that. Phooey. Hard cases make bad laws. Fictional cases make worse ones. The contribution of this piece of film to the policy discussion can only be to muddy it with Dirty Harry’s face on an issue that is hard enough to think clearly about in the abstract.

Secondly, I’d like to make clear that no law will remove the necessity of moral thought. If assisting in suicide becomes legal in some cases, it will still be morally wrong in a subset of those cases. It may even be morally right in a subset of cases where it remains illegal. I do believe (and I can argue this separately) that it is incumbent on a person to take the law into account while making moral decisions, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to make the decision. To me, it then follows that if this film is meant to address assisted suicide legislation, it does so from the wrong angle entirely.

In other words, the film has come to be a proving ground for arguments about whether assisted suicide should be criminal, and it’s a bad idea either for the filmmakers or viewers to use it in that sense. It’s just not a good vehicle for that.

There remains the question of whether Frankie’s action was right. As I was watching the movie, I felt bad for Frankie precisely because his own character flaws prevented him from making the decision well. It’s possible, just barely, that such was the point; if so, it’s a powerful argument for our own inabilities to make such terrible decisions, for we are all at least as flawed as Frankie in our own ways. In a way, if that’s the view of the film, it’s a defense of the church. Had Frankie leaned on the crutch of the church, instead of standing alone in his pride, he would have made a better decision. As it was, he made a bad one. Perhaps that was why I was so depressed about it.

Really, though, I think the movie approves of his action, which I find totally inexplicable. I do believe that there are circumstances where suicide is an allowable option, and assisting someone is the most moral option available. This is not one of those circumstances. Maggie is not dying; with decent medical care (unlike the fictional kind in the movie), she could live for decades, and not in chronic pain, either. She simply chooses not to live in her current circumstances. She doesn’t want to live until she can’t hear, in her mind, the crowds chanting her name (or her nickname, anyway). Fine. All athletes reach the point where they can no longer perform at their peak, or even at all. Is it their right to be killed? Is the difference that Maggie can’t walk? Lots of people are bound to wheelchairs and live; most of those have had suicidal moments. Heck, most of all of us have had them.

Look, we don’t know anything about Maggie’s actual medical condition, which is a tool of the filmmakers anyway. But it seems clear to me that she has options. She can choose to live. She can choose to adapt. She can choose to start a new life, with new goals. Frankie is bound, in responsibility, to help Maggie with those choices. But if she chooses death, he is not bound to help her with that. First, of course, because there is no reason to believe that she is of sound mind, but second because there are limits to what a person can ask another to do for a choice. In necessity, those limits are different. This is only a matter of necessity because the movie forces it to be by narrowing our vision.

The movie also cheats. By portraying her family as unpleasant, unattractive, unloving and dishonest, it makes a false choice between them and death. By consistently showing Maggie’s development as purely physical, it makes a false choice between physical activity and death. By buying into the championship fever typical of sports and sports movies, it makes a false choice between victory and failure (victory in this movie consists of a title fight, of “getting your shot”, not necessarily of getting the title; it’s a distinction without a difference). And, of course, it ties us into Frankie’s view of the world, and makes us view the decision solely from his perspective, which is not the only one or the best one.

OK, enough. Maybe having got it written down, I’ll be able to let it go.

Thank you,


Not having seen the movie, I ask: isn't killing Maggie awfully out of character for a cripplingly risk-adverse character? Now, maybe the script sets it up that this is his one exceptional moment (blah blah epiphanycakes), but: ?!

If Frankie can keep his gym limping along and open for whoever walks in the door after losing his big chance at greatness, isn't he an ideal person to help Maggie learn to be a survivor and not just a winner?

I'm getting all this through your filter, because honeestly? no desire to see this flick. It may very well be that I'm responding not to the movie itself, but the movie in your head that should have been made.

It is interesting to me to read your perspective on this movie. I saw Million Dollar Baby last weekend, in my annual quest to see the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars, so it is fresh in my mind. In general, I thought it was well written, well directed, and well performed.

I was somewhat surprised to find out afterward that the movie is a source of such controversy and that much of the discussion is about the ending and the points you brought up. I didn't think that Maggie's suicide and Frankie's collaboration in it were the crux of the movie. I'm a little surprised at how much emphasis is put on Maggie's death.

I thought the movie was about Frankie's risk-averseness. I thought that the point of the movie, as conveyed by Morgan Freeman's narration, was that you have to let people take risks, that what people really want, what makes them happy, is having a chance at their dream, whether they achieve it or not. I thought the point was that if your first priority is always protecting yourself, as Frankie advocates, that you may protect yourself out of reaching for your dreams. Maggie took risks and suffered the consequences and was unrepentant. She put reaching for her dream above always protecting herself and she paid an unbelievably high price for it, even unto death, but she's ok with that. I thought that Maggie's suicide served to increase the price paid for her having reached for her dreams, and for Frankie having "permitted" her to do so. I regarded it as an enhancer to the risks and consequences theme, not as the defining moment of the movie.

I can see why the topic of assisted suicide in general deserves discussion and I very much sympathize with your point that the movie creates an artificial dichotomy between suicide and suffering by not acknowledging other plausible alternatives. But I am willing to let that pass since I don't think it's the major point of the movie. I think that the resolution of the movie requires Maggie to pay the ultimate price for having reached for her dream but I think that it also requires that she survive long enough to make it clear that this is an acceptable price to her, that she doesn't regret having risked it all for her dream. Making Frankie complicit in this decision also seems crucial to me. If Maggie had woken up in the hospital, reassured Frankie that she had no regrets, then died, or if Maggie had lived on under Frankie's care, then Frankie hasn't left his "protection first" mode. Frankie can not both protect Maggie and help her achieve her dreams. In the end, he chooses helping her above protecting her. For me, the assisted suicide is just continuing that theme to the most extreme case. So I see the point of that part of the plot as being about dreams, risks, and consequences rather than about whether assisted suicide is a good idea or is justified.

As an aside, I think it's interesting that we never find out why Frankie's daughter returns his letters unopened.

Thanks for that note; you gave me a lot to think about. I think that answer's Dan's question as well (I hope).

Further thinking forces me to ask if there is any controversy about the Frankie's ethics in even arranging the title fight. After all, he's well aware that the champ fights dirty, and that Maggie's risk is far greater than against another fighter. There's not really any indication that he warns Maggie at all, much less adequately.

And, of course, it's interesting that it is reaching for her dreams that is important, not attaining them. Not only does she not become the champion, but it's clear that her "shot" was never really a shot, and that the whole thing was rigged (particularly with officials turning a blind eye to cheap shots). And the terrible irony in the title, where the million dollars (which she'd only get half of, anyway) goes ... where? To the hospitals? To her family?

Anyway, I agree that the movie was well-written, well-directed, and well-performed (mostly), but I didn't enjoy it, and that was in part because I couldn't let the moral question pass.


okay if you haven't seen eastwood's prior flick space cowboys, don't read this.

i thought the ending was about as cheap as cowboys. ya got yer climax; now CRY, sucka! however i never before now thought of euthanasia as a metaphor for riding a one-way rocket to the moon. that's pretty cool.

how shall i put this. i had a moment where i was swept into the "fire of youth" ending. but there were so many stereotypes and wasted characters in the film, when nobody stepped in and said in any modern way, "kid you have a bright life ahead of you, let's talk," it was no more a surprise than was either the first or the umpteenth meaningful silhouette shot. melodrama doesn't end well, and if maggie wanted to live to the end of the movie, she shouldn't have shown up in the shadows as we first see her.

(our question for today's show: "is it really better to burn out than fade away?" we have a caller on the line from california. yes, mr. eastwood, do you have an answer for me?)

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