Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which won the Academy Award for best picture this year, has also been praised by the nation’s film critics. A. O. Scott of the New York Times called it a “work of utter mastery” and Roger Ebert dubbed it the best movie of the year long before Oscar did. Some viewers, however, have found the film quite troubling. They objected to the ending, in which (spoiler alert) the boxing trainer played by Clint Eastwood, who also directed the picture, helps a young female boxer die after she suffers a damaging spinal-cord injury. Unfortunately, much of this criticism has been shrill. Rush Limbaugh, not one of our most subtle and nuanced commentators, called it a “million dollar euthanasia movie.” The disability rights group Not Dead Yet claimed that the film conveys the message, “better dead than disabled.”
I also found the ending of the film disturbing, though I think it deserves more sober scrutiny than it has received thus far. Million Dollar Baby is not a “euthanasia film” in the way that, say, The Cider House Rules is an apologia for abortion rights. Two-thirds of the film, which is really an old-fashioned boxing drama, doesn’t deal with euthanasia at all. That said, when I left the theater all I could think about was the ending, which I found manipulative and depressingly bleak.
Maggie Fitzgerald, the female fighter played by Hilary Swank, suffers her injury during a fight with the reigning women’s champ. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), who has come to regard Maggie as a daughter, is devastated by the injury. Yet Maggie is resilient, and at first it seems that she’s going to deal with her paralysis in the same determined way she fought for her chance at the title. But over time-we’re not told how long-she grows more despondent and finally asks Frankie to help her die. Frankie refuses at first, in part because he is a Catholic, but eventually agrees to carry out her wishes. Late one night he sneaks into the hospital, removes her from the respirator, and administers a lethal dose of adrenaline.
Is the film a thinly veiled argument for assisted suicide? Eastwood has denied the charge. I doubt that he made the film solely to make a political point about the right to die, but I think he was trying to pick an argument near the end of the film. For example, Frankie does not simply remove Maggie from the respirator-an action that under certain circumstances, namely when such treatment is useless and burdensome, can be morally justified. He euthanizes her by injecting her with adrenaline. (Those familiar with the Karen Ann Quinlan case know that taking a critically ill patient off a respirator doesn’t necessarily lead to death.)
Eastwood also presents a misleading picture of the situation faced by patients in Maggie’s condition. As several critics have noted, Maggie did not need Frankie to take her off the respirator. For over a decade conscious patients have been able to make that determination themselves. The storyline seems to suggest that if Maggie wants to die, she has the right to assistance from others, whether they are friends or doctors.
Does the film convey a “better dead than disabled message”? I wouldn’t put it so crudely, but Maggie does say that life on a respirator is not worth living. Several critics have argued that she makes her decision for the wrong reason. (“I can’t be like this, boss, not after what I’ve done,” she tells Frankie, referring to her victories in the ring.) Judging a sick person’s moral competency is risky business, but it does seem clear that Maggie is not psychologically prepared to make such a decision. In her attempts to die, she bites her tongue repeatedly in hopes of bleeding to death. Clearly she needs counseling. Many seriously ill people who want to die change their minds after they receive the right kind of psychiatric help (see “Alternative Sentence,” Slate.com, March 3).
What bothered me most about Million Dollar Baby, however, wasn’t these missing details. I was most perturbed by the rigid individualism that drives the film, one that places personal rights above all familial and religious obligations. Frankie loves Maggie, and he knows that by helping her die, he will be committing a kind of spiritual suicide. Yet he goes ahead anyway. Of course, viewers of Eastwood’s films won’t be surprised by this kind of gloomy stoicism. A similar bleak vision is at the heart of Eastwood’s Mystic River and Unforgiven. What makes the individualism in this film so stark is that it is set against a Catholic backdrop. Frankie is a daily churchgoer who prays each night. When Maggie first makes her wishes known to him, he seeks the counsel of his priest, who tells him he cannot help her die. Frankie’s final action is all the more shocking in light of what he clearly understands to be the teaching of his faith.
Some Christian critics have praised the film, noting that if you watch carefully Frankie is punished for his actions. I don’t agree. Yes, at the end of the film Frankie cuts off contact with all friends and goes off to live on his own. But if anything, Frankie is portrayed as beyond hope, beyond redemption. This is not a Christian world. This is Clint’s world.