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Is Clint Eastwood Pulling His Punches?

Even if you haven't seen it yet, you can't be surprised that Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby got all those Academy Award nominations. Yet it wasn't so long ago that an Eastwood picture was anything but an Oscar shoo-in; that Larry King asked if the loner-hero movie star would ever consider himself a director (even though Eastwood had made nearly twenty movies by then); that he seemed like the quintessential Oscar underdog who deserved it if only for having gone so long without standing any chance. Of course, as Eastwood grimly tells Gene Hackman just before blowing his head off with a rifle in Unforgiven, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."

This rather agnostic recognition might be how Eastwood got even the leftiest critics and Academy voters to adore Unforgiven, which, despite its complexity and genre subversion, still amounts to one of the most pumped-up revenge fantasies since, well, Dirty Harry. Nonetheless, Unforgiven was Eastwood's turning point. And though he has travelled a solitary road ever since, he's been hewing closer and closer to its middle. No wonder the awards are finally rolling in.

Million Dollar Baby is about a grizzled old boxing trainer named Frankie (Eastwood) who reluctantly lets a young woman (Hilary Swank) into his gym and his life, and turns her into a champion. Swank's performance is a knockout, and unimpeachable-except, perhaps, for her retention of all those great teeth. But the casting choice seems more like an insurance payment than a creative decision. Imagine Scarlett Johansson in the part instead; I'm not saying it would have worked, just that I'd appreciate the dare.

Despite its complexity and genre subversion, Unforgiven still amounts to one of the most pumped-up revenge fantasies since, well, Dirty Harry.

And his decisions prompt the question: is this as good as Eastwood's feminism gets? I ask not only because the movie is about a woman who rewards paternal nurturing by being good at beating up other women, but because the filmmaker has long humiliated himself in order to curry female favour. He went through a knowingly-not-quite-romantic-lead phase (The Bridges of Madison County), and now he's on to the knowingly-flawed-patriarch phase. He's testing the theory that his charm lies in his knowingness and that despite all his flaws-or maybe because of them-this charm is impossible to refuse. This strategy can address the best question his work has ever asked-how the hell to be a man in this world-or it can be like the worst kind of come-on: at once boorish and ingratiating.

Don't think I'd ever say this to his face, though. He's still Clint Eastwood, for God's sake.

But if he's so okay with trading his virile screen-self for more mature and vulnerable roles, why must he so constantly reference the earlier persona, especially with such nudging irony? If, as he says, his films trade in morality, not politics, why does their centrist tone increasingly echo the empty rhetoric of a political phrasemaker? Does he want to make a girl-power movie or not?

There's an antibaroque impulse in Eastwood's direction, a no-nonsense aesthetic. He doesn't go in for dazzling camera moves or crazy cutting. He underlights. His films can impress with the easy, rustic grace of never trying too hard or they can become stiff and square, the vision rigid. The early fights in Million Dollar Baby feel a touch overchoreographed. The score, which Eastwood wrote himself, smacks of safety, sameness and even schmaltz, and often sounds just like his score for Mystic River. Eastwood takes pains to show us, through awkwardly utilitarian cutaways, how much of the story its narrator, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), has personally observed-which only serves to remind us of those moments he hasn't seen, and therefore shouldn't be able to describe. Freeman has such a great narrator's voice that we wouldn't care if Eastwood hadn't pointed it out. Alas, that voice is too often used to telegraph the movie's theme, with lines to Frankie like "See you been workin' on yourself. Learning to open up. That's good." And to us: "Frankie did something he hated doing. He took a chance."

When we hear early and repeatedly in Million Dollar Baby that the first rule of boxing is to protect yourself, we don't doubt that the movie will then proceed to belabour the mournful pitfalls of too much self-protection. Of "training a girl," Frankie snorts, "It's the latest freak show!" Of course, his protégé's dedication, not to mention her badass boxing, will open him, but only by appealing to his paternalistic sensibility. And-don't read this if you haven't seen it-when he finally lets her make her own decision, it literally paralyzes her, leaving her life in his hands. What is he trying to tell us?

Eastwood, who goes in for American meaning, might have wanted to make the un-boxing movie, just as he tried for the un-western with Unforgiven.

As films from Raging Bull to Rocky IV have shown, America saddles the boxing movie with unfair demands for meaning. I think Eastwood, who goes in for American meaning, might have wanted to make the un-boxing movie, just as he tried for the un-western with Unforgiven. It's a worthy ambition, but he's diluted the results. If Million Dollar Baby is subversive, it's only by accident.

His reliance on adapted material (in this case, stories by cut-man-cum- writer F. X. Toole) has begun to seem like a pose of literary curiosity and cultivation, a disavowal of responsibility for his political opinions. He's now Clint the Complicated; you can't pin him down. He's like the boxer who does a lot of dancing and weaving to exhaust his opponents. I have to say I miss the days when he'd throw a punch.

Yes, Million Dollar Baby is the kind of picture they don't make them like anymore. But the reason they don't is not that the audience has become dumb and juvenile, as is so often assumed. It's because of folks like Eastwood, who've shown us the absurd limitations of political correctness-or, in other words, who've wised the audience up. It's his own fault that he's got to work harder.

At one tense moment, Frankie prays on aching knees, "You know what I want. There's no use repeatin' myself." That tone-the half-charming, half-obnoxious mixture of flattery and pride, the performed humility-seems to sum up where Eastwood is as an artist right now. I wonder if it will be his Oscar clip; he might as well be praying to the Academy.

Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.