A male voice over tells the story of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) who owns a gym in Los Angeles where would-be boxing contenders train. Frankie is a hardened trainer who studies Gaelic in his free time. Eddie (Morgan Freeman) is a kind of assistant maintenance man, who was one of Frankie’s fighters until he was blinded in a fight. He lost. Frankie is a Catholic who goes to Mass everyday. He has a kind of contentious relationship with the parish priest whom he is always questioning about matters of faith. The priest tells him he has to believe – and write to his daughter.
Frankie is dismayed when the man who is his best hope for winning leaves him to go with another trainer/manager. This happens because Frankie doesn’t trust him enough to let him fight for a title. Just about then, a young woman (Hilary Swank) shows up at the gym and pays for six months of training. Her name is Maggie Fitzgerald. She is 31 and she wants to fight; she waitresses for money. She tells Frankie that it’s only when she is boxing that she feels like she is living when he tells her she is too old to learn boxing. Maggie wants Frank to train her because he is the best, but he resists for a long time. But after a year or so, he puts her in the ring and she wins twelve straight fights by knocking out her opponents in the first round. They end up in England, where Maggie wins again. They stay in Europefor awhile and Maggie wins more fights.
Frank always tells her that the first thing she has to do is protect herself. Frank goes home at night to see all the letters he has sent to his daughter returned to him. Little by little, Maggie has grown on him as if she were a daughter.
Maggie has been saving up her money and buys her mother, who lives on welfare in Southwestern Missouri, a house. Her mother (Margo Martindale) is unappreciative and yells at Maggie because if she has a house, she can no longer get welfare and take care of the rest of the family.
Frank ups Maggie’s class so she can win another women’s boxing title in Las Vegas, a straight split for a million dollars. But her opponent is ruthless, and whenever the referee isn’t looking, she attacks Maggie. Finally, when Maggie turns around to return to her corner, the woman punches Maggie so badly that she falls and breaks her neck, severing her spinal cord. She is now a quadriplegic and cannot breathe on her own.
After two months in the hospital, Frank accompanies Maggie to a rehab center in Los Angeles. Maggie becomes dispirited. She eventually asks Frank to help her die. Frank refuses and goes to talk to his priest about it. The priest listens and tells Frank it is wrong to help someone die, and that he will be lost if he does this thing.
Maggie tries to commit suicide by biting her tongue, twice. She almost bleeds to death. The doctors keep her sedated so she will not do it again.
Frank decides to help her die. One night he goes to the rehab center, kisses her on the forehead, disconnects her breathing tube and injects a huge dose of adrenaline into her I.V. Frank disappears after, returning to a place in Missouri where he and Maggie had eaten lemon meringue pie, and even Eddie cannot find him.
Million Dollar Baby is a film that will reach in and wrench your soul, no matter how much you might disagree with its premise that euthanasia is okay. The film is written by one of my favorite screen and television writers, Paul Haggis. I think I am the only fan in the world that taped and still have all the episodes of EZ Streets that aired before the show was cancelled in 1996. Brilliant, dark television about people’s souls and the battles they fight there.
Million Dollar Baby is such a film, but it deals unsatisfactorily with two huge moral issues for me. One is boxing itself. Eddie’s voice over says more than once that boxing is unnatural. I agree. I could hardly watch the boxing sequences in this film, or any other boxing movie for thatmatter. Boxing is worse and more senseless than football or ice hockey on abad day.
The other moral problem is that of euthanasia; it, too, is unnatural. To deliberately act against life is always wrong. The ends do not justify the means – ever.
The film never talks about the moral dilemma of euthanasia really, nor does it explore any options for Maggie. No one talks with her about the pros of living or the hopelessness of dying by your own hand or that of another.
What the film does so effectively is take us in and make us feel every bit of Maggie’s misery and Frank’s self-blame. It makes us think that euthanasia was the only choice. Therefore, as a human being and a Catholic, the film is a disappointment to me. We can always choose life. I refuse to not believe in hope.
A medical ethics argument can be made that Maggie’s care was extraordinary treatment. Even though the boxing commission was paying for it, a person is not required to ask for or be given extremely expensive care. A person has a right to die naturally under normal care. However, neither Frank nor anyone had the right to kill Maggie, which is what he did by giving her the excessive dose of adrenaline. This was a direct attack on the person.
Nothing in the film happens in the light. The movie has a film noir quality about it, beginning with Eddie’s voice over. Film noir is usually about the dark side of policebusiness and the criminal underbelly of life. The film has these qualities because of the location of the gym, the lighting – and maybe the crime of euthanasia. No one overreaches in this film, and the acting is minimal, convincing and heartbreaking.
Million Dollar Baby gets its name from the prize-money purse and the fact that Maggie only weighed a little over two pounds when she was born. She had to fight to survive from the moment of birth.
Director Clint Eastwood and writer Paul Haggis have crafted a superb movie that works on every level except the ethical and moral. It’s too bad it is nihilism dressed up as compassion. But may it like other films of 2004 about life issues, launch a million conversations.