In Defense of Million Dollar Baby

[I haven't seen Million Dollar Baby. The venom it generated from Christian critics has thus far been enough to keep me from forking over $8. A good friend of mine and occasional guest blogger, Jerry Nora, recently saw it and came away with a much different impression than the vast majority of those critics it seems. Jerry is a faithful, orthodox, and well-read Catholic. He's also a MD/PhD student who has a knack for bioethics. I don't take his opinions on such matters lightly. I give you his defense of Million Dollar Baby for your consideration. When preparing to comment, bear in mind that he gave up reading blogs for Lent and won't be able to respond in a timely fashion. If you'd like to respond directly to him, email him. – Funky]

Millon Dollar Baby did a solid job of sweeping up the Oscars last night, including Best Picture and Director, and all over the objections of many within pro-life life and conservative Christian circles for evidently being in favor of euthanasia or assisted suicide. Those objections nearly made me avoid the film, but I saw it last week, and was glad I made that decision. My conscience is clear because while suicide is in the movie, the movie does not glorify or abet suicide. The film is a modern-day tragedy, and it does not offer an easy out or proverbial "Hollywood Ending", which is why I think so many people misinterpreted it. Here is my brief take on the film.

Before we get to any suicides, we must know the players involved. In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Hilary Swank's character, Maggie, who is determined to become a champion boxer in spite of being 32. 'She was from the sticks in Arkansas: her brother was a con, her sister was a single mom cheating on welfare, and her mother was morbidly obese and emotionally needy – your proverbial trailer trash. 'If I grew up in that, I'd consider boxing a legitimate way out, too.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), is an aging boxing coach who reluctantly trains Maggie in the face of her determination. He writes to a daughter that always returns to him unread, goes to Mass everyday but has driven the priest to despair with endless irritating questions, sort of passive-aggressive questions, and berates himself for how the janitor of Dunn's gym, Eddie Dupris (Freeman), lost his eyesight when Frankie was subbing for his drunkard coach during a fight. Dunn is a deeply haunted man who cannot, as the priest points out, forgive himself for some event in the past with his daughter. He also cannot commit his athletes to fights because he is afraid they'd get maimed. Maggie's persistence was the chief factor for what made Dunn agree to Maggie entering the big prizefights.

As one would expect for such a dark movie, Dunn's fears are realized when Maggie gets a high cervical fracture from a cheap shot in a fight. She needs a respirator to breath, and has her trashy family come to get her to sign over all her winnings to her mother to keep the money safe. Maggie refuses, and tells her family never to come back. At around this point, she gets some bed ulcers on her right leg that become gangrenous, resulting in an above-the-knee amputation. The greed of her family and the amputation seem to break her spirit. While the Boxing Commission was paying for all the hospitalization, she lost her will to fight.' She then asks Dunn to help her die.

Dunn refuses, but is in agony. He nicknamed Maggie "Mo Cuishla" – Irish for "My Heart" or "My Blood" – and clearly took her on as a substitute daughter. When he discusses the matter with the priest, the priest warns him that since Dunn was still reeling from whatever sin he had committed in the past (presumably with his daughter), this would completely destroy him. He then urges Dunn to bring her to Jesus. Dunn then protests, tearfully, that Maggie wasn't asking for Jesus, but for him. Dunn then sneaks into the hospital at night, wakes Maggie and tells her what he'll do. She nods and looks relieved, and he then disconnects her ventilator and gives her a massive dose of epinephrine.

The next scene is critical. Dunn never returns to the gym the next day, or any day. Dupris is waiting for him the day after the suicide and is greeted by the return of "Danger" Brach. "Danger", like Maggie, is another piece of white trash that wound up in California, but Danger did not have Maggie's talent or brains. He disappeared in the middle of the movie after some bullies at the gym beat him up. But now Danger is back, and he tells Dupris that he was right, that it was okay to lose one now and then. This is what Dupris said to Danger when he was trying to help the poor kid after he got beaten up.

That one scene makes all the difference: Danger did not have squat. Maggie still had her brains after the accident, and Danger never had them or much of anything. But he came back to fight again. Dunn disappeared, and Dupris never learned what happened to him. The priest was right: after helping kill Maggie, he lost his roots.

The movie is a tragedy of how Maggie's fear of her own family and upbringing drive her to a fierce perfectionism and sense of self-sufficiency. Her coach was a severely damaged, and subtly egotistical, man whose past mistakes drove him to make his biggest mistake yet, all in the hope of trying to help Maggie where he failed his biological daughter. We do not have a sermon at the end to tie up all these loose ends and outline the morality of the movie, but upon reflection, this is not a movie for suicide.

Update: Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the few really good shepherds in the American episcopate, has written a column in which he calls MDB "a great film about boxing and a bad film about moral reasoning."

CNA article: Denver Archbishop calls praise for Oscar winning 'Million Dollar Baby' a 'stretch'
column: 'Million Dollar Baby': Great boxing, bad moral reasoning

Alas, if we keep playing it up as euthanasia propaganda, we'll only help bring about that unintended consequence that Chaput warned about, i.e. making this movie into an unwitting euthanasia film. And again she committed suicide, not euthanasia! IT IS NOT EUTHANASIA IF THE VICTIM ASKS FOR IT!!