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Million Dollar Missed Opportunity

What Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning movie could have done.

10:00 AM, Mar 1, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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IF ACADEMY AWARDS were given for the greatest lost opportunity, Million Dollar Baby would have won them, too.

As anyone who has been paying attention to the ruckus mounted ably and righteously by the disability rights community must now know, the movie climaxes with Frankie, Clint Eastwood's character, euthanizing the once indomitable Maggie, his boxing protégé, played by Hillary Swank.

Frankie kills Maggie because she doesn't want to go on living after being catastrophically injured and disabled in a boxing match. It isn't just the disability that leads to her suicidal desire. In the world of the script, she is plunged headlong from triumph to utter hopelessness. Indeed, the script writers manipulate the audience emotionally into thinking, "Of course she wants to die. Given the same situation, who wouldn't?"

First, Maggie becomes a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, after once living a life of utter physicality. That would be difficult to adjust to even under ideal circumstances. But Maggie's life as a disabled woman is anything but ideal. Despite supposedly receiving the best of care she soon develops bed sores so serious that one of her legs is amputated. (Apparently the writers didn't know that proper medical care prevents most bed sores.) Third, her venal and uncaring family refuses to visit, and when they do, she is pressured into signing over control of her assets. Fourthly, after trying to kill herself in a terribly painful way, she is force-sedated to prevent further suicide attempts.

Frankie is in anguish over his friend's plight and concludes that he is actually killing Maggie by letting her live. So, in his love for her, he overcomes his Catholic guilt and murders Maggie by removing the respirator and injecting her with an overdose of adrenalin. The intent, of course, is to leave not a dry eye in the house.

The makers of Million Dollar Baby and the Academy members who voted it Best Picture probably believe the film was innovative and courageous. But depicting mercy killing as compassionate and loving has been used as a plot devise so often that it has become a cliché. Indeed, not only have most contemporary television dramas--ER, Law & Order, even Star Trek Voyager--resorted to mercy killing as a plot point, but so did The Sea Inside, the Spanish movie Academy members voted this year's Best Foreign Film.

Nor is this a story line of recent vintage. Indeed, in the past movies were made as explicit propaganda to promote the legalization and legitimacy of active euthanasia. The most notorious of these is the 1939 German movie, I Accuse (Ich Klage An), a film that, with Goebbles's blessing, both promoted voluntary euthanasia as well as the propriety of killing disabled infants--to blockbuster success at the box office.

It is striking and disturbing how similar the plotline of Million Dollar Baby is to the voluntary euthanasia story in I Accuse. In both, the tragic and doomed heroine is a very talented and independent woman; a boxer and brilliant pianist respectively. In both, the heroine becomes seriously disabled and unable to pursue her life's dream. (In I Accuse, the heroine contracts multiple sclerosis and loses her ability to play piano and fears becoming a quadriplegic. In Million Dollar Baby, the heroine's neck is broken, resulting in quadriplegia.). Both heroines beg their primary male companions (the husband in I Accuse and surrogate father in Million Dollar Baby) to put them out of their misery. Both men initially resist weakly but come to see that killing their beloved is the only way to avoiding pointless suffering.

The primary difference between the two movies is that I Accuse ends with the husband righteously defending himself in the dock against criminal charges, pointing an accusing finger at the camera proclaiming, "I accuse!" at society for not permitting the compassionate and purely voluntary ending of lives no longer worth living. In Million Dollar Baby, Frankie is devastated by what he has done and disappears, never to be heard from again. Nevertheless, the message of the rightness of mercy killing is more than implied: Frankie's act is depicted as heroic by the film's narrator, played by Morgan Freeman.

Clint Eastwood has stated adamantly that he did not intend Million Dollar Baby as a showpiece for legalizing euthanasia--and I believe him. Rather than pushing an agenda, it seems to me that Eastwood--like so many others in Hollywood before him--merely saw the mercy killing angle as good drama; particularly when combined with Frankie's conflicted Catholicism.