Thursday, March 03, 2005


Imagine a boxing movie whose plot belatedly shows the need for animal experiments because its badly injured protagonist is denied a crucial drug derived only from this banned practice. Can you imagine flick gurus like Roger Ebert failing to mention the film’s political agenda? More to the point, would you assume that the sacred duty not to reveal climactic plot twists would prevent the sedentary Chicagoan from blasting the production for totally misrepresenting the facts? I doubt it.

Yet such is the case with Clint Eastwood’s poignant “Million Dollar Baby.” The professional obligation not to spoil the public’s viewing experience apparently trumps everything else, even blatant falsification, when it comes to discussing a typically Hollywood take on assisted suicide.

I say “typically Hollywood” because caricatures replace complex portraits whenever the switch is needed to promote a help-me-pull-the-plug political agenda. Thus, realistic relatives of the fallen fighter are scratched for a gaggle of trailer park hicks who’d tempt even healthy folks to pull the trigger--one direction or the other. Similarly, incompetent care, unlikely medical scenarios, and even an unsympathetic priest are trotted out to make clear to aficionados of “Cider House Rules” that a single grim option is available to Maggie's (Hilary Swank) doting manager.

The film’s most egregious manipulation puts Eastwood in the same class as that past master of mendacity, Oliver Stone. “Million Dollar Baby” would have us believe that a lucid quadriplegic totally dependent on a respirator cannot legally refuse medical treatment. This state of affairs is as palpably false as my fantasy that animal experimentation has been banned.
Diane Coleman, President of Not Dead Yet, should be aware of the law in such cases. After all, she suffers from a debilitating spinal disease and has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of eleven. At night she even uses a respirator. Coleman noted that, contrary to script, Swank’s character could have refused treatment at any time. After all, she was conscious, verbal, and clearly competent.

For those unwilling to believe the word of an advocate--or loath to think that a filmmaker would grossly mislead his audience--a glance at California law might help. Specifically, I direct skeptics to a 2001 ruling by the state Supreme Court (Conservatorship of Wendland) that reiterated (rather than established) the right of lucid patients to refuse heroic medical treatment.

Hard cases, it is said, make bad law. The reason for this adage is that laws are necessarily general--made to cover a variety of circumstances, not tailored to fit worst-case scenarios. The same could be said of “easy” cases--those in which factors that usually complicate things all point in the same direction. “Million Dollar Baby” not only goes out of its way to make things as easy as possible, it lies to do so.

It’s a shame that critics, reflecting the lawless ethos of the industry they cover, don’t see that telling the truth about matters of life and death is vastly more important than knee-jerk loyalty to a fraternal code of silence. I strongly suspect that these same critics would be eager to proclaim the truth--any time, any place--if the themes being misrepresented were ones to which they gave an enthusiastic thumbs up, politically.

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