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Oscars favorite Million Dollar Baby
Hollywood plays it safe

Review by Brian Jones | February 25, 2005 | Page 9

Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman.

"ALWAYS PROTECT yourself" is Rule Number One in Clint Eastwood's latest film and Oscars favorite, Million Dollar Baby.

The trouble is that Frankie Dunn (played by Clint Eastwood) has become overprotective of the boxers he trains in his downtown Los Angeles gym, the "Hit Pit." Fighters learn a great deal from him, but move on if they want to move up, since he's reluctant to let them take the risks that are necessary to win title fights.

The loss of his most promising trainee to other management is the occasion of the arrival of Maggie Fitzgerald (played by Hillary Swank) in the Hit Pit, a dirt-poor girl from Ozarks, who comes from "trash," but is determined to be trained by Frankie.

At first he rebuffs her--"I don't train girls," he says--but she is encouraged by his only employee and long-time friend, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer himself. Of course, Frankie eventually relents and at that point the film becomes, as Eastwood himself puts it, a father-daughter love story. Maggie is the daughter that Frankie wishes he had (his real one is estranged), and Frankie is the father that Maggie lost.

The structure of Million Dollar Baby is remarkably unremarkable. Its narrative is relatively straightforward and relies on strong character relationships instead to deliver its punch (my apologies).

Eastwood, Freeman and Swank all give strong performances. Tom Stern's stark photography and Eastwood's own original music, often in the form of a lone blues guitar, gave the film a haunting, timeless quality.

That its "rags to riches" journey is interrupted by tragedy, however, does not serve as a social critique of the American Dream. And while Frankie is clearly a "free thinker" in the eyes of his local priest, and the characters grapple with the question of euthanasia, the film is not ultimately about religion or euthanasia.

Consequently, despite the attacks it's received from right-wing pundits like Fox's Bill O'Reilly, Million Dollar Baby isn't really deserving of political praise from the left, or of political wrath from the right. Eastwood, we can't forget, lent the tough-on-crime backlash a Hollywood gloss with his Dirty Harry movies in the 1980s.

So, while Eastwood has in Million Dollar Baby undoubtedly made a film that displays his ability to tug on our heartstrings, the politics of the film are no departure from the mainstream. That the protagonist is a member of the working poor makes her sympathetic, but only because she's different from the rest of them. Her family is portrayed as heartless, selfish and lazy.

While Maggie trains, a poster in the background reads, "Winners are simply willing to do what losers won't." In the context of the 2005 Oscars, where the fantastically popular documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 has been snubbed altogether, the "winners" are bound to be a set of politically conformist million-dollar films.

Eastwood and Hollywood have learned Rule Number One: "Protect yourself."

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