Million Dollar Baby: One of the best movies of spiritual
substance ever made
Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby
ranks among the best movies of spiritual substance ever made. Given that Mel Gibson's
The Passion of the Christ was also released in 2004, and is focused on
one part of the gospel narrative, my conclusion may surprise. In fact, Million
Dollar Baby has more of the real Christ in it than Mel Gibson's blockbuster.
As previously reported,The Passion of the Christ
is based upon one very narrow slice of the New Testament narrative. It's about
the crucifixion of Jesus, and it focuses to the point of obsession on just one
aspect of that, namely, the physical suffering of Jesus, capturing, as a camera
can, all the surface detail of Christ's wounded and bleeding flesh.
In the entire New Testament there are only a few sentences that focus on such
details, and Gibson has made an epic mountain out of the few scraps of factual
information available to him. The rest is fiction, borrowed from sources outside
the Bible, as I and others have thoroughly documented. The result is a testament
to the personal faith of Mel Gibson and a serious distortion of the biblical message.
The biblical narrative is not about physical suffering, it's
about the redemptive act of God in and through the life, death and resurrection
of Jesus, and that story is told against the sweeping backdrop of God's activity
throughout the history of the world, from beginning to end. The gospels are about
humanity's struggle with the forces of evil and death, and the journey from conflict
and alienation toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. In all of this,
the figure of Jesus stands out, not because Christ suffered uniquely, but because
we find in his triumph, a powerful prefiguring of our own hope. He is, as one
biblical writer put it, "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."
Like Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood understands that suffering is very much part of
the human story, but Eastwood finds a way to probe beneath the details on the
surface to illuminate the inner depths. On the surface, Million Dollar Baby
is about a young woman's struggle to find her own salvation from the debilitating
circumstances of poverty and child abuse. Her path toward liberation is an unlikely
one: professional boxing. And she selects, as her mentor and trainer an unlikely
savior in Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) a gifted coach, who has thus far failed
in his own ambition to train a champion. But beyond that, Frankie is struggling
not only with a sense of failure, but more powerfully with a sense of guilt. For
those who have faced it, there is nothing more debilitating than the feeling of
having come to a dead end in life, not as a result of outside circumstances, but
as a result of a character flaw that lies within.
The third major
character in the drama, is Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freedman), one of Frankie's
fighters, whose professional career was ended in a fight that cost him the use
of one eye. Frankie blames himself for the fighter's partial blindness.
The fourth character in this drama who needs mentioning, is a Roman Catholic priest;
Father Horvak (Brian O'Byrne) is actually a stand-in for institutional religion.
Eastwood's portrayal of Horvak is my only major objection to this movie. Had this
character been portrayed with greater subtlety and depth, the movie would have
attained even greater heights. Near the end of the film, Horvak delivers to Frankie
a guilt enducing, pro-life rant. Rather than engaging Frankie as a true priest
and pastor, he walks away from a member of his own parish at the critical turning
point in his entire life. Such behavior is inexcusable on the part of any human
being, let along one who is called to be a representative of Jesus Christ.
Having mentioned the single flaw that struck me about Million Dollar Baby,
I will conclude this review with a short list of reasons why this movie deserves
all of its Academy Awards and more. First, the acting of Clint Eastwood, Hillary
Swank and Morgan Freeman is totally convincing. Second, this is a great story,
well told. Third, it deals with universal themes that are not only of the moment,
but for all time. Fourth, the movie marks Clint Eastwood's flowering as a director.
It is wonderful to see a man in his seventies at the height of his talent. And
finally, its surprising conclusion is powerful, taking, as it does, a series of
unexpected turns that left me, and other members of the audience, both stunned
Why do I think that there is more of Christ in Million
Dollar Baby than in Mel Gibson's splatter film? Because the real Christ rules
in the lives of human beings who struggle through the ordinary circumstances of
their own lives toward the light, rather than in religious icons such as The
Passion of the Christ.Million Dollar Baby mirrors our own fight for
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.