What Not To Do: A Review of the Film Million Dollar Baby

Note: in order to speak frankly about the issues raised in the film, this article reveals major plot points.

As my wife and I waited in the lobby of the theater to go in and see Million Dollar Baby, she said that she hoped there was at least one puppy in the movie. I responded that I did not think there were any puppies in it at all. Neither of us really had any idea whether there were any puppies in the film, it was simply the casual banter of a married couple. Sure enough, when Maggie, sitting in the car at the gas station, looks over and sees a little girl holding a puppy, my wife nudged me. 

That shot, of course, creates an opportunity for Maggie to tell a story about her father euthanizing a crippled dog named Axle. This reflection in turn foreshadows the film’s great twist—in the title match, Maggie’s neck is broken, leaving her a ventilator dependent quadriplegic. We watch as Maggie and Frankie struggle to deal with her condition, and ultimately hear Maggie ask Frankie to do for her that which her father did for Axle.

The New York Times hails Million Dollar Baby as “the best movie released by a major Hollywood studio” in 2004. Metacritic.com scores it 86 out of 100 (“universal acclaim”) citing nearly two dozen reviews scored at 100. The film and its actors have won numerous awards, including four Oscars—Best Supporting Actor Morgan Freeman, Best Actress Hilary Swank, Best Director Clint Eastwood, and Best Picture. Indeed, the film portrays a story that it is easy to believe actually might be happening. For all of its fine points, though, Million Dollar Baby contains serious flaws. 

One great failing is that the distinction between human life and animal life is blurred, even eliminated. Maggie asks Frankie to do for her that which her father did for Axel. This is a line of reasoning that Geoffrey Fieger, Jack Kevorian’s lawyer, has used. In short, when animals are suffering, it is expected that they will be “put them out of their misery.” Shouldn’t we do the same for the ones we love? 

This of course is simply a reflection of the naturalistic worldview that pervades our culture. On this view, human beings are simply the most highly evolved form of life on the planet, different only by degree from other living things. From this same naturalistic point of view comes thinking like, “we answer to no one but ourselves,” “this life is all there is,” “grab all you can while you can,” and “get yours and get out.”

The problem with this perspective is that human beings are not just animals. On the contrary, human beings bear the image of God, and have been given dominion over animals. Our lives are gifts from God that ought to be used only for His glory. Euthanasia, suicide, and assisted suicide are wrong because they deliberately end a human life—a life that bears the image of God.

If, as Christians, we truly believe that human beings were created for relationship with God, then even being a ventilator dependent quadriplegic does nothing to prevent that relationship—again, the relationship for which we were created—from growing, developing, and deepening. 

This is not meant to minimize the suffering involved. As the film depicts, it takes a team of people and hours of time simply to get up out of bed and prepare for the day. The final conflict between Maggie and her family alludes to the fact that such care also involves a great deal of money. Bedsores are a threat that can result in amputation of limbs, and, as in Christopher Reeve’s case, death. It is worth noting that a friend of mine who is a nurse points out that a bedsore as severe as the one depicted in Million Dollar Baby is indicative of very poor nursing care and not an example of typical patient experience. 

Christopher Reeve himself single handedly demonstrated that even the most severely paralyzed can live a rich and vibrant life, given proper care and support. While I disagree strongly with his views on embryonic stem cell research, he did show that, even in purely earthly terms, one person’s life can have great impact no matter what harm has come to the body.

Million Dollar Baby has been condemned by disability groups for portraying a disabled life as not worth living. However, in the highly individualistic times in which we live, the political message is more complex than that. If an individual deems her life not worth living, then that should be her immediate choice. She should not have to fight the powers that be (or have someone sneak into her room in the middle of the night) in order to end her life. On the other hand, those who choose to fight for life should be supported fully in that decision.

The individualistic argument, then, is that such a decision is deeply private and painful. Strong, tenacious Maggie made a difficult and brave choice. She even chewed through her own tongue—twice—in an effort to die. What is obfuscated is the fact that euthanasia, suicide, and assisted suicide all end human lives; lives that require—and should be given—proper support and care. While no one needs to endure medical care that he or she deems unduly burdensome, protocols have to be followed to ensure that a decision to withdraw care is taken with great consideration, not a rash choice in the face of a shocking situation or a response to a lack of supportive care. 

My largest complaint with the film, though, is its depiction of people of faith. Throughout the film, Frankie’s relationship with the priest is pictured as antagonistic and hostile. Nevertheless, in the end, when Frankie goes to the priest for advice, he is told only “leave her in God’s hands,” and warned, “If you do this, you'll be lost somewhere so deep you'll never find yourself again.” The church is portrayed as a source of confusing and abstract concepts that have nothing to do with daily life, not as a place to find answers. 

The situation Frank and Maggie face is a summons to the community of faith to come along side and offer support, encouragement, and help—concrete material assistance with daily living. It is a call to demonstrate, in a very real way, the truth of the things believed.

Million Dollar Baby is very direct in its depiction of struggle, suffering, and isolation; it will leave you unsettled, perhaps shocked. In a culture that pushes for greater acceptance of euthanasia, suicide, and assisted suicide, perhaps this is a subject about which we need to be unsettled. Every human life needs proper support and care, and faith communities uniquely are equipped by the Holy Spirit to respond. Million Dollar Baby is a superb vehicle, portraying a “what not to do” message.

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