I recently saw the new Ron Howard film, Rush, in which a devastating accident is so well executed that it reminded me of an even more affecting moment on film that, too, has the brutal antagonism of sport as its central tragedy. In Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood’s most important film as director, we see the thirty-something Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) rise from persistent wannabe to boxing champion, only to see her fall in an aggravated incident which was at once beyond her control and seemingly inevitable. Both films work incredibly well to show us the flimsiness of safety in two ridiculously dangerous sports, but they do so in different ways. Rush positions us to see the shakiness of the Formula 1 driver in the heat of the moment, battling all the elements — the possibly faulty mechanics of the car, the torrential weather, the sheer speed on the track that makes it impossible for us to concentrate on anything — let alone their competitors. Million Dollar Baby shows us a more direct situation, where opponents tackle no one and nothing but themselves. The episodes of these sports are equally electric, but boxing for me is the more terrifying because there are no intermediary obstacles — nothing to distract the players from their own violence, from the possibility of their own cruelty.
Eastwood, who plays Maggie’s boxing coach Frankie, is acutely preoccupied with the idea of withdrawal. He is interested in knowing when to call it quits, in playing a risky game carefully. But his pupils don’t quite see it the same way — they’re more likely to see an exit from the ring for want of safety as a kind of weakness, as surrender. But Frankie’s regret about his perceived failures — both personal and professional — to ‘throw in the towel’ invariably informs his approach to coaching, and ultimately makes his role in the film’s final moments all the more chilling. In the early scenes, his most persistent reminder of the sport’s lasting toll is former trainee and now-employee Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ Dupris, played by Morgan Freeman (who also lends his magnificent voice to the film’s narration). Scrap’s partial blindness as a result of a fight where he just didn’t give in leaves Frankie with the indelible feeling that he’s ruined people’s lives. But the pressure from his students, who want nothing more than to fight, just keeps coming — his most successful boxer even leaves him because Frankie refuses to set him up for the big, but risky, championship fights. And Maggie, the rising amateur, constantly asks Frankie to move her up the field as she stunningly dominates every match. Frankie is always hesitant, but he succumbs in the end. The results are brutal.
It’s a careful trick of the film that we know, deep down, something depressing is about to happen to Maggie. Frankie is too worried, too paranoid about his influence over her for there not to be a significant consequence. The engineering of the audience’s anticipation gives the film its real weight and amplifies our eventual frustration, devastation and acceptance about Maggie’s injury in equal measure. The altogether negative influence of Maggie’s family — first unsupportive, then indifferent and ungrateful, and ultimately manipulative — certainly doesn’t help, but it elevates Frankie’s role in her life, and we come to identify beauty and tragedy in their relationship.
There is something disturbing and morbidly fascinating about boxing that has made it the most interesting sport as a subject for film. Many great films, whether uplifting, depressing or some weird combination of the two — including Scorsese’s Raging Bull, David O Russel’s The Fighter and Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone — have explored ideas of healing, injury and obsession through a vigorous focus on boxing as a sport that can destroy its competitors. But these films also show us that these competitors can be remarkable people — people with relentless determination, a fascinating appetite for combat, and overpowering self-belief. Million Dollar Baby presents to us both the allure of the sport and a dark caution about its frightening risks. We always see these things together: scenes of Maggie’s charming and magnetic rise, performed impeccably by Hillary Swank, interrupted by those of Frankie’s tormented reflections, presented by that characteristic Eastwood expression. It should be said, though, that Maggie’s (successful) fights are truly the most entertaining and even comic scenes of the film. The film doesn’t downplay the ‘magic’ of boxing; it even goes to poetic lengths to explain it to us.
Scrap says the ‘magic’ about the sport lies in ‘fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs … risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you’. Maggie clearly feels the same way, but her passion for the sport is further founded in a kind of all-or-nothing choice. Maggie sees boxing as her way out of everything. Her charming personality and optimism is never enough to hide her deep dissatisfaction with her life outside the sport. Eastwood sets up a decision where the allure of the game is the trump card in Maggie’s decision. This is not to say that the sport vitiates her career choices, but simply to stress that the film highlights something disarming about sports, even those which are the closest to unrestrained physical combat — to fighting, pure and simple. And it is Maggie’s attraction to the sport which makes the incident, arising out of her opponent’s malicious conduct, all the more painful. To be sure, the film makes us feel truly great anger about the opponent, but it equally and soberly reminds us of an inconvenient truth: that this conduct is a deplorable, but maybe unavoidable, by-product of a sport premised on inflicting physical injury.
Scrap is the only person who can rationalise the whole thing and come to some sort of peace about it. He tries to comfort Frankie and give him perspective about his sense of responsibility for Maggie’s condition. Scrap’s thoughts give us a painful but honest account of the desperation and joy with which Maggie and all boxers alike hope to find success in their sport:
“It was because of you that she was fighting the championship of the world. You did that. People die everyday, Frankie — mopping floors, washing dishes and you know what their last thought is? I never got my shot. Because of you Maggie got her shot. If she dies today you know what her last thought would be? I think I did all right.”
The film presents this as a persuasive interpretation — a feasible translation of the American Dream to boxing — but it doesn’t, I think, give us enough cause to accept it outright. Yes, it shows us these pictures of Maggie running up and down the beach, relentlessly training herself to impress Frankie, but it also leaves us with Frankie as a deeply tormented, ‘lost’ man. It is a measure of the film that it doesn’t try to assuage our moral qualms about Frankie’s final actions or to condemn our possible sympathy for them. It simply leaves us in a position without clear answers, and where, unusually, you might even find yourself watching all of the credits, listening to the slow piano-chord soundtrack, trying to come to terms with everything that just happened.