One of my favorite films of the past few years is the poetic “Elephant” (2003, Gus Van Sant). It was widely attacked by critics for not taking a clear moral stand on the issue of school violence. I was upset at the time that any variation from traditional Hollywood narrative structure, with the inevitable moral development of the central character would be so harshly attacked. So it is not surprising that the much more conventional “Million Dollar Baby” is being attacked for the same reason. Even though the film follows a traditional three act structure and does show the moral development of the main character, and even though Eastwood is no radical lefty, the increasingly fine-tuned brutal honesty which has always characterized his own movies has the right up in arms. I won’t tell you why, because that might spoil the film, but you can read the whole Frank Rich article in the New York Times if you want to know more. Here is the part I found particularly insightful:
What really makes these critics hate “Million Dollar Baby” is not its supposedly radical politics — which are nonexistent — but its lack of sentimentality. It is, indeed, no “Rocky,” and in our America that departure from the norm is itself a form of cultural radicalism. Always a sentimental country, we’re now living fulltime in the bathosphere. Our 24/7 news culture sees even a human disaster like the tsunami in Asia as a chance for inspirational uplift, for “incredible stories of lives saved in near-miraculous fashion,” to quote NBC’s Brian Williams. (The nonmiraculous stories are already forgotten, now that the media carnival has moved on.) Our political culture offers such phony tableaus as a bipartisan kiss between the president and Joe Lieberman at the State of the Union, not to mention the promise that a long-term war can be fought without having to endure any shared sacrifice or even too many graphic reminders of its human cost.
… Mr. Eastwood’s film, while also boasting great acting, is the only one that challenges America’s current triumphalist daydream. It does so not because it has any politics or takes a stand on assisted suicide but because it has the temerity to suggest that fights can have consequences, that some crises do not have black-and-white solutions and that even the pure of heart are not guaranteed a Hollywood ending. What makes some feel betrayed and angry after seeing “Million Dollar Baby” is exactly what makes many more stop and think: one of Hollywood’s most durable cowboys is saying that it’s not always morning in America, and that it may take more than faith to get us through the night.