BEYOND HIS SILENCE, THERE IS A PAST. BEYOND HER DREAMS, THERE IS A FEELING. BEYOND HOPE, THERE IS A MEMORY. BEYOND THEIR JOURNEY, THERE IS A LOVE.
As an actor, Clint Eastwood is a genuine American icon. His career as a director on the other hand has been quite uneven but the release of Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby, two very impressive dramas about human nature, shows how much he has grown as a filmmaker and producer. It’s not just that he is able to tell a good story in a way that captures audiences, he also knows what stories to pick, which actors to cast and what crew he can get the most out of. Eastwood is so good now that I’m willing to forgive him for basically recycling in this film the music theme he wrote for Unforgiven (1992).
The story is chosen from a collection of boxing stories that were written by F.X. Toole. At the center of it is a young woman, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank); she’s 31 years old, dirt poor, with no future. She does however nurture a dream of becoming a boxing champ. Maggie tries to get the well-respected trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to show her the ropes, but the sullen veteran has no interest in training “girls”. After a few intelligent conversations with Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who helps him run his gym, Frankie reluctantly changes his mind. Maggie is a good learner and after a while starts winning fights; the two of them create a special bond. But then it happens, the accident that changes everything and challenges their relationship.
This is the point in the film where the theme of boxing disappears, but the other themes last throughout the film. It is a traditional tale of the American dream, how someone who is born in poverty supposedly can make it if they only set their mind to it. Dignity and determination have a lot to do with it, not least in the second half of the film. The relationship between the trainer and his protégé is like one between a father and a daughter, which is another big theme; Maggie’s father is dead and Frankie’s daughter won’t have anything to do with him (the priest at his church keeps telling him to get in touch with her).
Eastwood takes top honors
It’s a film that feels like it has very genuine relationships, and the environs are no worse. The gym, the ring, the hospital… all places that ring true. The fights are not as stylized as in Raging Bull (1980), but they don’t need to be. Freeman’s character says boxing is beautiful but director Eastwood shows these fights as above all exciting and brutal events; the punch that puts a stop to Maggie’s career is quite shocking.
Swank effectively builds our sympathy for her character and Freeman is equally good as the laidback former boxer who lost an eye in the ring. But it is Eastwood who takes top honors this time; he is simply perfect as the old man who in the end must decide to once again go against God because he has nothing to lose and he feels it’s the only decent thing to do.
The film as a whole has its flaws. There’s not much originality and the director paints a too one-dimensional portrait of Maggie’s greedy white-trash family… but the movie is so well made technically. And it’s damn near impossible not to shed a tear in the final sequences.
Unfortunately, there were people at the time of the film’s release who chose to see it as liberal propaganda for euthanasia, which is odd considering the politics of Clint Eastwood. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh kept the “debate” going and it’s a testament to the film’s strength that the controversy basically died before it even started. I’m glad to see that the Oscar voters showed Limbaugh what he could do with his fightin’ words.
Million Dollar Baby 2004-U.S. 133 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Paul Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, Albert S. Ruddy. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Paul Haggis. Novel: F.X. Toole (”Rope Burns”). Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie Dupris), Anthony Mackie, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter.
Trivia: Sandra Bullock was allegedly the first choice to play Maggie.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Swank), Supporting Actor (Freeman). Golden Globes: Best Director, Actress (Swank).
Quote: “The body knows what fighters don’t: how to protect itself. A neck can only twist so far. Twist it just a hair more and the body says, ‘Hey, I’ll take it from here because you obviously don’t know what you’re doing… Lie down now, rest, and we’ll talk about this when you regain your senses.’ It’s called the knockout mechanism.” (Freeman)
Last word: “When I heard about [this role], I just thought, ‘What is the thing about hitting someone and wanting to get hit? Where’s the pleasure in it?’ The whole thing eluded me, but then, you know what? Like anything else in life, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, when you have to dive into something deeper than you would, for whatever reason, you gain respect for it because you learn about it in different ways than you ever would expect. It’s not like I didn’t like boxing, I just didn’t think about boxing. Then after training, and boxing 2 1/2 hours a day, six days a week for three months became part of my training before I started filming, and, as I filmed I kept boxing, [I worked on it] for probably five months. I learned that it’s much more than anything physical. Obviously the physical aspect of it is huge, but it is such an unbelievably mental sport. I don’t know how many of you play chess, but it’s like a great game of chess, and I say that because when you’re in the ring, you’re one with this person. Everything goes silent and it’s you and that person.” (Swank, Pop Entertainment)