Film Critics at Center of Controversy Over Eastwood Film

By: Brian Orloff Clint Eastwood's drama "Million Dollar Baby" may be racking up the critical praise and plaudits -- including seven Academy Award nominations -- but it's what critics aren't saying that has become the real story, according to some. Critics' silence over the film's final emotional/ethical twist is sparking ethical debate among activists and film critics alike. A group called Not Dead Yet has sponsored protests and picketing.

"Any movie that sends a message that having a spinal cord injury is a fate worse than death is a movie that concerns us tremendously," said Marcie Roth, executive director of the American National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

Thanks to the publicity, by now most readers should know that the film eventually raises serious issues surrounding assisted suicide or ?mercy killing.? Moviegoers, of course, like most Americans, split on how they feel about it. Was it wrong, in this case, for film critics to refuse to give away the ending? Are they taking too much of a pro-euthanasia stance? Can they even seriously review this movie if they don?t discuss its key component?

"I get angry when I feel that I'm getting told too much,? Michael Miner, editor of the Chicago Reader, who wrote a column about this centering on local critic Roger Ebert, told E&P. ?But in a case like this it's quite a bit different from the surprise in ?The Crying Game? or the surprise in ?The Sixth Sense.? You find yourself not able to talk about the philosophical core of the movie. This is not just a twist at the end. This is everything about the movie that makes people walk out thinking they've seen something wonderful."

"Million Dollar Baby" tells the story of a struggling boxer, Maggie (Hilary Swank), who convinces hardened trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) to coach her. He reluctantly agrees, and she becomes a success and a surrogate daughter. But after a brutal punch leaves her paralyzed, the film's final one-third takes place in a hospital where Maggie confronts her future and Frankie wonders if he should help her die.

Miner wrote about Not Dead Yet, which has protested critics' lack of disclosure, and the film's ending, commenting, "Thanks to the star power of Swank and Eastwood," the film was an endorsement of a certain point of view.

He told E &P: "I think that's a flaw of the movie that stars ... tend to sweep argument away. What they do seems to be the right thing to do because they're doing it. But this can be said about a lot of movies."

Ebert fired back, filing a column this past Saturday with the headline "Critics have no right to play spoiler." He wrote: "The characters in movies do not always do what we would do. Sometimes they make choices that offend us. That is their right. It is our right to disagree with them. It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were."

Director, and principal actor, Clint Eastwood told The New York Times that the characters' choices and his own choices are very separate.

"The film is supposed to make you think about the precariousness of life and how we handle it," he told the Times. "How the character handles it is certainly different than how I might handle it if I were in that position in real life. Every story is a 'what if.'"

Since the film's release conservative commentators -- including Michael Medved and Rush Limbaugh -- have revealed the film's "secret" on radio shows and on Pat Robertson's "700 Club."

In his column, Ebert distinguished between the role of a film critic and an organization such as the national spinal cord injury association, which he argued has a different responsibility to provide information and support to communities it serves.

But what exactly are the responsibilities of mainstream movie critics?

"Writing for a mainstream newspaper, you have so many people out there who have so many diverse opinions that you can't, and you shouldn't, try to focus your coverage simply down to that one group," Steve Persall, film critic at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, told E&P.

Persall, who gave the Eastwood film an "A," said the sudden narrative shift makes "Million Dollar Baby" masterful. "The way he shifts from the boxing movie into the tragedy situation, that's what makes the movie work," he said. "The movie grabbed me before but that's what just wouldn't let me go. That's the kind of thing you don't want to reveal to audiences as a mainstream movie critic."

Miner said speaking with advocates from the Not Dead Yet group for his column illustrated that they were not outraged about film critics' silence just for their own sake but other viewers'.

"I'm going to guess the group I wrote about, Not Dead Yet, was overstating things," he said. "I think generally they weren't upset for themselves. They were upset in the name of some hypothetical viewer. ... A lot of members of that group, I imagine, would watch that movie and feel just a profound sense of regret at the way it ended."


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