Hilary Swank picked up another trophy last night at the SAG Awards for her performance as Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby. Earlier in the day, Tim Rutten's Regarding Media column in the L.A. Times knocked film critics for not finding a way to discuss the moral issues raised in the movie. He states his case without totally giving away the plot turns, though he frames them, and he argues that reviewers should have dealt with the art of the film.
If you haven't seen the film, the odds are you don't know that it even involves euthanasia. The reason you don't know is because the nation's film critics made a collective decision not to tell you — or, to be more precise, they decided you don't really want to know. In fact, for all the critical attention justifiably lavished on "Million Dollar Baby," not a single review in a single major U.S. newspaper or magazine even alluded to the presence — let alone the dramatic centrality — of an assisted suicide.
One of the main characters is left a quadriplegic and, unable to bear with that state, asks another of the characters to help in committing suicide. How that protagonist responds is the moral and emotional heart of the film. So why is it absent from the reviews? The answer, according to a number of leading film critics, is that — just as physicians are schooled to do no harm — the cardinal rule of newspaper and magazine film criticism is "never give away the plot."
It's an interesting argument — and obviously sincerely offered — but it's spoken in the language of commerce and not art, which is why it rings hollow when applied to a film like Million Dollar Baby....
It would be churlish to give away the plot of a thriller—such as The Sixth Sense—or even what Graham Greene would have termed "an entertainment," like The Crying Game or his own The Third Man. But a serious film with genuinely important themes occupies an entirely different aesthetic space and demands the same sort of treatment that a great novel or important painting demands. To presume otherwise is to relegate film to a lesser art and film criticism to a lesser genre.
*New: Sheehan, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, responds on his website.