February 7, 2005


Stepping into the ring (Roger Ebert, February 6, 2005, Chicago Sun-Times)

Q: You think that guarding the secrets of "Million Dollar Baby" to preserve a "key plot point" (as you put it) is of the highest importance. In my opinion, it is the teaching of "Million Dollar Baby" that should have been the focus of your review.

Why? Eastwood and all motion picture directors and writers are teachers. They teach us how to dress. How to express ourselves. Whether to smoke or not. Movies teach the public about acceptable and not acceptable behavior. Movies are usually not propaganda. They do, however, express a moral point of view, a teaching. There is no such thing as a morally neutral movie.

"Million Dollar Baby" forces us to think, as you wrote. But it does far more. In "Baby," Eastwood teaches us in a powerful and highly emotional way that sometimes it is morally good to kill a paralyzed person. This teaching is false, and the reasons it is false should be published. You write: "A movie is not good or bad because of its content." I write: A movie is good or bad because of many elements. One of these elements is its content. It's not the ending, nor any "key plot point." It's the teaching.

James A. Colleran, Pastor, St. Mary of the Lake, Chicago

A: Thank you for your eloquent letter. I wrote a little more specifically, "A movie is not good or bad because of its content, but because of how it handles its content."

There is a difference. The movies do teach us, as you observe, but in this case do they teach us to agree with what Frankie does, or to question it? I thought it was a great movie about a man who, given who and what he is, does what he thinks is the right thing, but what I think is the wrong thing. I was struck by the positive portrait of the priest in the movie. I believe he is correct when he warns Frankie that his decision will haunt him for the rest of his days. It's interesting that a point of view opposed to Frankie's is given an eloquent voice in the film.

In all the mail I've received regarding this movie, the most moving message came from someone I have quoted before, the film critic Jeff Shannon of Seattle, a quadriplegic. He writes:

"Would a viewing of 'Million Dollar Baby' necessarily be harmful, if the viewers truly value life? My personal feelings about the first year (or years) of paralysis is that you are, essentially, held in a kind of limbo. You don't want to live, but you don't want to die (at least, I didn't), and so you are stuck in a state of spiritual and philosophical stasis, and it is during this crucial time that options begin to come into focus.

"For every moment of every day for the past 26 years, I have had solid, justifiable reasons for hating my life and wanting to die, but by the same token, I got through that 'stasis' period, as the vast majority of paralyzed people do, and despite all the daily pain and hassles of being quadriplegic I do not hate my life and I do not wish to die.

"I have found, as many people do, a certain grace and benefit from living with the cards I've been dealt. I do not say this out of any kind of personal nobility, because I didn't choose this life and, contrary to many disabled folks, I would prefer to be able-bodied because I am painfully aware, on a daily basis, of all the things that I have lost to paralysis. But as I know, there are options besides death and self-pity, and we forge ahead, leading lives that will, in the long run, reveal the benefits of choosing to stay alive. Maggie Fitzgerald, in 'Million Dollar Baby,' doesn't feel that way, and for all the reasons you state in your think-piece about the movie, she is entitled to her decision."

What she's not entitled to is to have someone else effect her decision for her, particularly when she's incompetent to make it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 7, 2005 12:06 PM

film was bad enough.

Her desire to not live was wholly legitimate, and Clint's decision to honor her decision was honorable. She wanted to go out with some sense of her accomplishments, rather than live what has got to be a miserable existence.

Posted by: neil g at February 7, 2005 7:36 PM

There's no honor in killing someone who's depressed.

Posted by: oj at February 7, 2005 7:41 PM