i think i’m getting pretty cynical in my old age music, because i had to fight the urge within me to deflate the film while i was watching it. i kept thinking about other films that have done it better, about how elements of this film were derivative, about how it’s got everything that the academy looks for (an underdog, some death, a retard, some triumph, some defeat…), etc. but in between my cynical inner thoughts were moments of being mostly moved and/or impressed by the film in one way or another. it really isn’t a staggering film, and in a better year it wouldn’t have garnered the best picture/director nominations, but this is 2004 and so it deserves it…and it may even deserve to win (i haven’t seen finding neverland or the aviator yet).
the first element of the film that struck me was the narrative. morgan freeman really is axis on which the film turns. his character is not only the narrator and primary observer, but is also a cross between swank and eastwood’s characters. as is usually the case with him, freeman turns in a great performance and could definitely take home an oscar for best supporting actor.
the bigger cinch for the film, though, is the editing oscar. sure, ray, was well-edited and the way hackford told the story of ray’s early life in segmented flashbacks was nice, but million dollar baby’s editing did even more. the montages were just as good and it had going for it the fact that it had fight scenes which immediately raise the bar for editing. that said, i felt that the fight scenes were one of the weak points of the film. when compared the fight scene in the set-up (1949) the fight scenes in this film are downright primitive. another element of the fight scenes which bothered me was something that all boxing movies tend to do – they depict a movie style boxing match. there is very little actual boxing or strategy, there is just fighting and slugging. no one plays defense, or wears down their opponent, they merely knock them out with an unwieldy right hook. anyone who knows anything about boxing knows that this is uncommon. most boxing films are good about getting the training and “talk” of boxing correct, but when it comes to filming the actual fight, they tend to do a fairly inaccurate job, and this film is no exception. then again the academys aren’t about determining the best, rather they determine the best of the most popular.
really, though, the film isn’t about boxing, it’s about telling a compelling story with round, engaging characters; and here it is unequivocally successful. eastwood, freeman and swank all do excellent jobs playing their characters in believable and sympathetic ways. it’s not always easy to like eastwood, but through of his sense of humor and reluctant, yet heartfelt interaction with swank the audience warms up to him. freeman and swank play less difficult roles in that they are liked by the audience throughout. swank’s role is probably more trying, though, because she plays the widest range of emotions. in my review of eternal sunshine i said: “jim carrey had his best performance, but kate winslet was just as good, in a more mercurial role.” and that’s why she was nominated and he wasn’t. i think that this is the same reason that swank will win and eastwood will not. her role covers a wider range of emotions and is likable throughout, and likable characters generally get the nod. one exception i can think of off the top of my head is rod steiger who wasn’t always likable in “in the heat of the night,” yet he won best actor that year (1967), despite being up against some very stiff competition (beatty, hoffman, tracy, newman).
ultimately it’s a very fine picture. it’s moving, it’s funny, it’s got some exciting moments, eastwood gets his digs in on catholicism and does a little pandering to the oscar audience. but the difference between eastwood and scorsese, late in their careers, is that eastwood panders with his heart and scorsese panders with his mind. he’s a great filmmaker, but the guy does everything with his head and nothing with his gut or his heart anymore. man he bugs me.Watched in theater