Makers of ‘Rocky’ take note. This is how to make a sports film.
Sports films fall flat when they focus on the sporting aspect. The excitement of sport is not knowing the outcome, but in film dramas the director’s job should be to make the viewer think and make up their own mind about a certain situation. This is why the best films are the most intelligent films that give you challenging situations and complex characters. That is why ‘Million Dollar Baby’ is a success.
The film focuses on Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a waitress with no future who decides to commit herself to becoming a female boxer. She wants top coach Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to train her. After initial reluctance he agrees. His attitude to training is not to push boxers to their limit, after a former pupil, Scrap (Morgan Freeman) lost an eye in his last final. Scrap is now a caretaker in Frankie’s gym. We also learn about Frankie’s relationship with his daughter which helps to explain the close relationship that develops between coach and fighter.
The purpose of the film is not to find out if Maggie wins a particular fight, or not. In every fighter’s career there are highs and lows and ‘Million Dollar Baby’ does not try to pretend that after starting to train into your 30s that you will suddenly become a world champion. Instead it focuses on the fragile and intricate relationships between these complex but every day characters.
I personally think I overlook Swank when looking at great actresses of our time, but she really is a fearless actress. Despite her obvious beauty, she attacks tough and unglamorous roles with determination and skill. Compare this role to her disturbing role in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (a film which without her would have bordered on mediocre but with her becomes a fascinating portrayal of a confused character) and you will see her talent. Maggie is a tough but likable character who we want to learn more about. We don’t necessarily mind if she wins fights or not, but we do want her to be happy, which is ultimately the most important thing for her.
As I have mentioned before, Eastwood has a limited range of characters that he plays, but this outwardly tough, but sensitive inside character is perfect for him. He can control the scene when required, but has the art of not dominating when not required. Because of his careful selection of roles I have yet to find an Eastwood performance that I do not like.
Morgan Freeman is always consistent, and the addition of this character gives the film an extra dimension.
Of all the Best Picture winners, this was easily one of the biggest surprises. I read about it and I thought: oh dear, a soppy film about a woman boxer. But, I found myself unable to tear my eyes away. Whether it was the great acting, the intelligent storyline and handling of issues, or the interesting way that the film was told, with Freeman’s character narrating, or most likely, a combination of all of these factors I’m not sure, but I found it to be one of the best films of the year and the second best winner of the last decade. For those apprehensive about watching this film as they will think it is not really their thing, I would suggest that you watch it, as you may be very very pleased that you did.