Monday, December 12, 2005

Million Dollar Baby, Two Cent Ethics

Warning: If you haven't seen the film, I am about to give away the ending.

Clint Eastwood's Academy Award-winning film Million Dollar Baby is in many ways everything a movie should be. Its period aesthetics, inspiring story, and wonderful screenplay are the stuff film-makers dream of. It would be hard to think of a movie in recent years with better performances. For its first ninety minutes or so, this film is perfect. And then comes an ending so cruel, so manipulative, so morally bankrupt, that it left me not just disliking this film but seriously questioning Eastwood's judgment as a film-maker. This film is gorgeous from an aesthetic perspective but it is an ethical disaster.
The viewer is clearly supposed to believe that the decision made by Frankie Dunn in the end to assist Maggie with her own suicide is heroic, because Maggie's desire to commit suicide is also heroic. I find this repellent but it gets worse. Why is Maggie such a hero for wanting to commit suicide? Because she has become disabled. This amounts to something like the following argument:

It is heroic to commit suicide if you can't live life on your own terms.
The disabled cannot live life on their own terms.
It would be heroic if the disabled were to commit suicide.

Let me clarify one aspect of the movie's ending which is deliberately obscured. Many viewers watching the movie the first time through get the impression that Maggie is terminally ill. After all, she is never shown outside of her hospital bed, and she breathes with the assistance of a ventilator. She is deliberately made to look like she is terminally ill, even though she isn't. The tactic is a bait and switch. If the film showed Maggie in her wheelchair, enjoying the outdoors or returning to her old gym, the viewers' emotions surrounding her suicide would be completely different. This is why the movie subtlely feeds the impression that Maggie's disability is the equivalent of a terminal diagnosis. The business about the ventilator only confuses the issue further, especially because Frankie Dunn kills Maggie by removing it at the end, which reminds viewers of end-of-life type situations. Yet Maggie's condition is no different than that of many paralyzed persons who must breathe through ventilators. Christopher Reeve lived that way for over a decade, and no one considered him to be terminally ill or receiving life support. Thus the film builds its case on the premise that becoming disabled is a death sentence.
The rest of the argument follows from there. Maggie is a hero because she recognizes that the life of a disabled person is not worth living. Dunn is a hero for accepting her insight and acting on it. This is morally repugnant. Maggie's suicidal ideation would be seen by any compassionate person as a cry for help. She feels her life is not worth living because she has suffered a great loss, the loss of her freedom, physical wholeness, and independence. What she needs at this point is intervention by the medical team and by her friends and community. She needs to feel their support and know that they will not reject her because she has become disabled. She needs to see that there are many things she can still do with her life which would be of great value to herself and others. She needs to feel that she is not a failure and not to blame for her condition. What she doesn't need is someone who ostensibly loves her to actually assist her with her own demise. What kind of human being, when confronted with a loved one's expressed intention to commit suicide, would actually help them go through with it? To cite the principle of autonomy here is to show the clear limitations of that principle. There are some decisions no one has a right to make for themselves, and suicide is one of them. It is my belief that suicide is never a rational choice, and that a society which permits it is a society which encourages it. To phrase the issue of assisted suicide as pertaining particularly to the disabled, as if the lives of the disabled are truly not worth living, is really an awful thing to say. In fact what Million Dollar Baby amounts to is an able-bodied fantasy. It is a fantasy about getting rid of the disabled, rationalized by the premise that to do so would in fact be heroic: we would be doing them a favor. How convenient.
What is really heroic, what really deserves to be celebrated on film and everywhere, are the lives that many disabled persons live every day in the face of insurmountable difficulties. There are hundreds if not thousands of people just like Maggie who instead of turning their faces to the wall get up every morning and meet life's challenges with dignity, perseverance, and courage. The value of their lives is not an illusion. It is not on loan from the able-bodied. It is strictly a fact. For his slick piece of propaganda, Eastwood received an Academy Award. He should have been ostracized.


Nancy said...

Although I can understand where you are coming from I would like to challenge your view since I believe that it is possible to intepret "Million Dollar Baby" differently.
The assisted suicide may not be an act of bravery but a choice made in desperation by two people in a particular situation. Whether Eastwood intended to make an ethical statement I don't know,I certainly don't believe that it is possible to derive an ethics applicable to any disabled person based on this one case.

I acknowledge that there are many people who are testimony to a rich and fulfilled life despite being disabled, there are people who with the help of their family, their friends and the community lead happy lives - these stories are (should be) told in other films. Eastwood chose to show another reality: Maggie doesn't have any friends but Dunn who clearly needs support himself, her family sucks and the medical staff does not appear sympathetic either.

I believe Eastwood chose a devastating ending which doesn't sit easily with the audience or even Dunn himself in order to raise the question as to what we as family, friends and fellow human beings can do to end the feeling of isolation and loneliness experienced by those who have lost what they used to live for, in Maggie's case: boxing.

weazoe said...

Nancy, thanks for your insightful comments on the film. You're right that it's hard to know Eastwood's opinions on the disabled based on this one movie, however, it is also hard to watch the movie without having at least some impression that from the film-maker's perspective, Maggie's suicide is somehow courageous or the right thing to do. I could believe more in the fallibility of the characters at that moment if they were depicted realistically, however, the style of the ending is not realism but heroic melodrama. This is an understandable choice, since if the director presented what this act actually would have looked and felt like to the characters as if they were real people and this was a real situation, it would have been sickening to watch. But this only makes the contrived emotional exchange which takes place between the characters all the worse. How can we even stand to watch a man declare his deep fatherly love for a healthy disabled young woman, and then kill her in cold blood? It baffles me that anybody could accept this as some kind of compassionate act. What if he had taken a shotgun and blown her head off? At least that would have placed us squarely in the realistic mode, and thus triggered (as it were) an honest reaction from the audience, i.e., disgust. As to your comment about what we can do to end feelings of isolation and loneliness amongst our family and friends, surely something other than kill them?