There are many aspects of a movie which must be addressed and explored for the purposes of this review column. Each movie must be examined from multiple angles. In the course of this analysis I might be compelled to give away certain details of the film. However, I don’t want my spoilers to deter people from reading other parts of the review which may assist them in deciding whether or not to see the movie in the first place. So, instead of composing articles in the more conventional journalistic format, every review will be divided into four or five categories that will address different issues. If any of the categories contain information about the movie which could spoil the viewing then I will put a note with an asterisk under the heading of that category and the reader can proceed onto the next categories.

The four primary categories are: The Tzniut factor, which will address the appearance and actual presentation of the movie with respect to the Halachic realm’s code of human etiquette and behavior; The Shylock factor, which will directly examine any presentation of Jews or Judaism in the film for accuracy and/or positive versus negative tone; The Theme factor, which will address the major themes of the film and their educational and/or inspirational value; and The Fable factor, which will address the possible use of some aspect of the film, or the film as a whole, as a parable for some issue in Jewish thought. Of course not all movies will contain the Shylock or Fable factors. Finally, there will occasionally be a further point that I might want to emphasize – maybe something about the filmmakers or a small detail of the film which I feel needs to be spotlighted – this will be featured in a fifth category: The X Factor.

With these structural elements in mind let us move to the review itself.

“Million Dollar Baby:” In defiance of Hollywood anti-establishment convention

The Tzniut Factor:

In the modern world we have become accustomed to the infiltration of romance into any story. And with such romance, there is always the fear that a perfectly good movie will become Halachically questionable after a handful of sexuality is thrown into the mix. Yet, you say, “Million Dollar Baby” is a movie about a young woman’s struggle to assert her independence and fulfill her potential in a typically male world – where could there be room for a romantic subplot? Still, relevance and fear of a loss of focus have never stopped filmmakers from slipping a little romance and, more prominently, sex into the scenes. Until now.

“Million Dollar Baby” is a unique phenomenon in modern film; one might almost call it one in a million, if one doesn’t fear puns too much. Not only is there no overt sexuality but that other vetoing-culprit of Tzniut-conscious viewers, inappropriate attire, is also surprisingly absent. With the exception of fleeting shots of the skimpily-clad women who announce the change of rounds in a boxing match, the costume selection of the film is, for the most part, a wistful reminder of the days before people decided their own skin could be an accessory. And although the costumes may not be the height of fashion in BoroPark, nothing anyone wears in “Million Dollar Baby” would shock a native New Yorker, or even register on the radar.

Still, Tzniut is not just about sex and elbows, despite what they may have taught you in day school. At the heart of this movie is a very difficult Tzniut-related dilemma. Violence is not seen positively in Jewish thought. Wars are to be avoided when possible and bloodshed of any sort is strongly condemned in Jewish Law. More controversially, the role of women in any violent endeavor is a source of conflict among rabbis and scholars. The idea of making a sport out of violence would appear to be anathema to the Jewish philosophical evaluation of life but, even more so, the idea of making a sport of two women fighting steps directly upon the ever-scrutinized question of the role of a woman with consideration of Tzniut. It steps upon the line but does not, necessarily, cross it. That is a question for the poskim. Nonetheless, it is important for the active viewer to remind himself or herself, as he or she cheers on the protagonist, that boxing itself may challenge the laws of Tzniut even if there is no sex and no nudity.

The Shylock Factor:

“Million Dollar Baby” does not really contain any reference to Jewish characters or Judaism but I would just like to mention, in conjunction with the previous category, it is interesting to consider the role of Jews in the development of such sports as boxing in the early part of the twentieth century.

The Theme Factor:
* Warning : This section contains a spoiler *

“Million Dollar Baby” challenges many of the formulas employed in most underdog movies and, in doing so, introduces many interweaving and overlapping themes. However, two themes, in particular, stand out as dominant points of the movie, the question of personal autonomy in the face of death and the ultimate potential of repentance.

After suffering a paralyzing injury, Maggie Fitzgerald, played magnificently by Hillary Swank, chooses a death on her own terms over the shadow of a life left to her. Although this movie seems to be about an underdog’s struggle to the top, it actually ends up being more about that underdog’s struggle back down again. The question of unassisted and assisted euthanasia dances eloquently across the screen and offers the Jewish viewer the ability to absorb the empathy with which Halacha actually addresses this horrible conflict. Although the only religious opinion presented in this film is that of the Catholic Church and it is promptly disregarded, “Million Dollar Baby” offers the religious viewer an exceptional opportunity to explore the concept of human involvement in death.

Even if Halacha must finally denounce the actions of the characters in “Million Dollar Baby” as incorrect, the struggle each character must undergo with regard to the question of quality of life is most poignantly displayed. It is never easy to tell a person that he or she must suffer or that independence must have a cut-off point. Judaism, especially, is a system which encourages a person’s autonomy. Ironically, it is in “Million Dollar Baby,” with its Halachically unacceptable conclusion, that Halacha finds its greatest voice – to paraphrase Nietzsche, it is only when one gazes into the abyss that the abyss can be allowed to gaze back into a person. “Million Dollar Baby” encapsulates the original pain and eventual comfort of one choice and it is only through the complete understanding of that choice and all its consequences that the Halachic examination of Euthanasia can be pulled from the puzzle books and placed, where it belongs, in the hearts and tears of those who must know. And only then, finally and most importantly, can it be taken to the books with the proper mindset.

In direct parallel with this matter of personal autonomy, “Million Dollar Baby” introduces a second theme, one of repentance, teshuva. Frankie Dunn, played with a quiet dignity by Clint Eastwood, is a man haunted by a mistake buried in his past. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the viewer is never made aware of the details of Dunn’s transgression, the power of this sin illuminates every attempt he makes to approach God or his fellow human beings. Even without the exact minutiae of Dunn’s crime the viewer is easily led to the conclusion that Fitzgerald’s sudden presence in Dunn’s life is his chance to redeem himself.

In contrast to the conclusion in the previously explored theme, this theme concludes in prominent agreement with the Halachic understanding of Teshuva. Dunn seems to have attempted to ask forgiveness of the person he has hurt, he also appears to have placed himself in a semi-confessional state, and, most importantly, when he finds himself in the same situation as he was in previously, he acts differently.

It cannot be overemphasized how rare is the representation of repentance and redemption in this film. In the age of psychoanalysis and an almost cavalier search for first causes, the misdemeanors of main characters are not usually condemned with so little defense. The viewer cannot be certain if Dunn was justified in his past actions or not and the point of “Million Dollar Baby” is not to make a tragedy of Dunn’s past. Rather, it is a film of second chances – not brought about by fate but brought about by a man’s pure and true ability to say “I have sinned.”

The Fable Factor:

At the beginning of “Million Dollar Baby” Fitzgerald struggles to convince Dunn that he is the right trainer for her. She has chosen him and she makes it clear that her interest is not in just any trainer but in Dunn, in particular. This certainty with which Fitzgerald chooses her trainer, even before her trainer has chosen her, and the subsequent dynamic of their relationship offers the viewer a special parable for the elusive rabbi-student relationship. There is a commandment to choose a rabbi and it is as intricately complex a law as it is fundamentally crucial to a Jew’s life. “Million Dollar Baby,” in it’s portrayal of one woman’s selection of, and development with, her trainer, may offer an opportune analogy for this process.

Final Tally:

“Million Dollar Baby” may have inherent flaws but its potential to offer valuable concepts in a surprisingly Halacha-appropriate format override any of its problems. Nevertheless, the subtle limitations of this film, with regard to a Halachic framework, cannot be easily disregarded by the potential viewer since they can easily be missed during viewing. “Million Dollar Baby” is absolutely worth the effort but one must be ready to involve oneself in the film on a self-aware level. An active viewer will gain much from this film with very little sacrifice but a passive viewer may find himself or herself lost in a muddle of emotional confusion.


Dodi-Lee Hecht

2004 NISHMA