The plot twist that occurs about two-thirds of the way through Clint Eastwood's boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" hits moviegoers with the unexpected force of a stiff uppercut. Movie reviews and stories have honored that, largely keeping mum about the movie's conclusion.
But moving into the final weeks of Oscar season, the film -- which has received seven nominations, including best picture; best actress, for its star Hilary Swank; and best director and best actor for Eastwood -- has come under fire from critics attempting to polarize public opinion around a hot-button political issue addressed in the film.
Readers wishing to see "Million Dollar Baby" without prior knowledge of its conclusion are hereby advised of a spoiler alert. If you don't want to know what happens, read no further.
The film revolves around an up-and-coming boxer, Maggie, played by Swank, and her relationship with her seen-it-all manager, Frankie, played by Eastwood. Although the film has been marketed by its distributor, Warner Bros., as a kind of girl-power version of "Rocky," the tone of "Baby" changes when catastrophe strikes and characters are forced to make life-and-death decisions.
According to Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Assn., a national advocacy group with 13,000 members, this narrative development spreads a socially irresponsible message. "The movie is saying 'death is better than disability,' " she said.
The group contends that the movie is part of a larger bias Eastwood holds against the disabled. A press release on its website carries the headline, "Eastwood Continues Disability Vendetta with 'Million Dollar Baby.' " Labeling the movie a "brilliantly executed attack," it also details a 1997 lawsuit in which a disabled woman sued the actor-director, saying he did not provide handicapped-accessible restroom facilities at the Carmel, Calif., resort he owned.
The press release goes on to divulge the movie's plot. "Our responsibility is to the half-million people with spinal cord injuries, not to moviegoers or moviemakers," Roth said.
For his part, Eastwood said he has no vendetta against disabled people, adding that he has contributed time and money to their cause. And he contends the attack on him by the disability group is a cheap shot: "I've put my money where my mouth is with the disabled, so I don't feel like I have to apologize for that," he said.
Eastwood also noted that the lawsuit filed against him was ultimately dismissed.
As for the movie, Eastwood said, there is no hidden agenda. "I'm just telling a story. I don't advocate. I'm playing a part. I've gone around in movies blowing people away with a .44 magnum. But that doesn't mean I think that's a proper thing to do.
"I think it's opportunism," he said of his critics.
Eastwood said Wednesday that he doesn't think discussions of the plot are going to hurt "Million Dollar Baby."
"Any movie, could be 'Meet the Fockers,' is better when you don't have someone spilling the beans on it," he said. "But they may end up building curiosity. Knowing the ending certainly didn't hurt 'The Passion of the Christ.' "