Is it bad to say that I kind of really extremely hated this movie?
I know that’s an unpopular opinion, what with the awards and the critical acclaim and all that. But holy god, if I didn’t have to watch this movie for a class, I would have dropped it ten minutes in and had a lot better of an afternoon.
It’s not that I don’t like boxing movies – the boxing episode of Battlestar Galactica was, despite what general consensus says, one of my favorites, and hell, I even enjoyed Annapolis. James Franco hated Annapolis, and he was the one starring in it. No, I just hated this movie, and that is because it was downright bad.
Let’s start with the easy stuff. You could swing a cat through some of the plotholes in this movie. Clint Eastwood’s entire character is based around this horrible estrangement he has with his daughter, and they couldn’t take three minutes of screentime to tell us what this estrangement was all about? How am I supposed to know if he’s a dick or not if I don’t know what happened to make his daughter hate him? And then, of course, we have Hilary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald, who wants more than anything to be a boxer, mostly because it’s what the plot tells her to do. Seriously, movie, a line of dialogue explaining that she always wanted the power that comes of physical prowess or some crap like that, and I stop complaining about underdeveloped characterization. But no, who needs to actually explain motivations when we can spend even more time enjoying the most glacially fucking paced movie ever dragged through theaters? Cause I mean, it’s not like they didn’t have time to develop these characters; literally nothing happens for huge swaths of movie, until they remember that people paid to see girls punching each other and they should show more of that.
But the thing is, if that was all that was wrong with this movie, I would be disappointed, but I wouldn’t be so angry, and I’m angry because there is something fundamentally rotten at the core of this movie. See, you get the sense that it’s trying to do something good. It’s trying to empower its female protagonist, it’s trying to show her overcoming economic adversity and beating gender stereotypes and all that great shit. However, what it’s actually doing is reinforcing those stereotypes, in the most disgustingly insidious way possible.
Her family, for example, is portrayed in a way which confirms the worst suspicions of every conservative welfare-basher out there. Her mother is overweight, her sister is a single mom, her brother’s in jail, and, rather than downplay or subvert or do anything interesting at all with these characteristics in an attempt to humanize these people, these qualities are the only things that define them. Maggie says “Trouble in my family comes by the pound,” playing into the obese hillbilly stereotype, and claims that her sister pretends that her dead child is still alive in order to collect more welfare. Oh, but her family’s government leeching doesn’t stop there, as her mother berates her for buying them a house, as it will force her mother to get a job and lose government aid. The family’s cartoonishness reaches its grand finale when they arrive at the quadriplegic Maggie’s bedside, having put off visiting her in order to go to Disneyland, to ask her to sign all of their assets over to them.
The problem with this is that the utter absurdity of this family is played with total seriousness, and people watch this movie and think that working class individuals are actually like this. This is why it’s so difficult to get government support to people who desperately need it – movies like this one give the public an image of a “welfare queen” who is lazy, unsympathetic, and mooching off of your hard work. So, when Maggie is applauded for breaking free of this background, that’s a dangerous insinuation that being poor is a personal flaw, not an institutional sin. Look, I’m not going to get into the politics of economics right now, but the fact is that our society is structured in such a way that makes it very difficult to escape the economic class into which you were born, and the suggestion that underprivileged individuals are somehow not as good as those with more privilege is ludicrous.
But fine, you know what? Let’s ignore that. Let’s say this is a rags-to-riches story about a positive character with perseverance and pluck who pulled herself up by her bootstraps, and so you need those negative beginnings to show just how far she’s come. Except we really can’t say that, because Maggie’s characterization as well has massive issues. It’s a trick, see – we’re fooled into thinking Maggie has agency, because her character is based around this physical action, which visually seems to give her a lot of power. Film is necessarily a visual medium, and so seeing a character repeatedly knock out opponents with one punch suggests that character to be powerful. But every development in Maggie’s character is predicated by someone else. She needs to wait for Frankie to decide that he will train her. Her career is ended when another fighter injures her. She even says “People chanting my name; well, not my name, some damn name you gave me,” which gives Frankie power over her very identity. You can’t even really argue that she works hard, because with the exception of a montage, she’s always the perfect best fighter ever. Until that last fight, there’s no suggestion that she’ll ever fail (and she arguably didn’t really fail in that last fight either), which makes it hard to applaud her work ethic. And then, she ends up quadriplegic, taking away even the pseudo-agency her physicality gave her. Ultimately, she isn’t even allowed to kill herself (which brings up a whole other issue of how this movie treats euthanasia, but enough other people have dealt with that that I don’t have to), but has to watch as someone else does it for her.
When Frankie agrees to train Maggie, he tells her “I’ll try and forget you’re a girl,” which is pretty much the key to the whole treatment of her character. Being female is negative, and so, despite Maggie’s success, she’s never truly allowed to take ownership of it. She’s constantly infantilized – though the movie makes a pretty big deal out of how she’s in her early thirties, she never comes off as older than twenty-five or so, partially because she does things like jump up on Frankie and hug him when he gets her a good fight. Maggie can never have any real power because all of her power is given to Frankie, which points us to what this movie is actually trying to do.
Scrapp tells Maggie how “Frankie thinks he should have stopped that fight, should have saved my eye,” because that is what Clint Eastwood does in this movie. He is our white male savior, protecting the black men and the women, a bastion against the evil redneck leechers. This movie is a two-hour affirmation of the dominance of privileged white men (because if anyone in America needed a boost, it’s that demographic). It’s about his tragedy, his brilliance, and everything else in the movie needs to bend and twist to make sure he comes off the best. Everything comes back to Frankie, because he is the true hero of this story. Hell, that’s probably why they don’t tell us what happened between him and his daughter, because making that specific could put this character in the wrong, instead of just giving him your basic tragic past.
Now, maybe this has something to do with Eastwood directing. Maybe my bitterness has to do with an inability to take him seriously after the stool thing last summer. But you can’t tell me that what this movie is saying is okay. This is a deeply regressive film masquerading as a heartwarming tale of hard work and redemption, and that makes it all the more dangerous, because people don’t notice what they’re watching. These messages are powerful, and they’re telling viewers that all those stereotypes are true, and that prejudice and small-mindedness is okay. I have no idea where all this critical acclaim is coming from, because this movie really pisses me off. I never thought I’d watch a Best Picture winner I hated more than Crash, but congratulations, Million Dollar Baby, you win.