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Issue Date:  January 21, 2005

Fighting against the odds

Woman boxer learns the ropes in 'Baby'; 'Hotel Rwanda' owner saves Tutsi lives


Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby arrived too late for my 2004 Ten Best list but clearly belonged in it. In many ways it is an old-fashioned movie, a genre story about a struggling fighter with whose trials and successes we easily identify. What makes it stand out from versions we’ve seen before is that the boxer with the dream is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a desperate 31-year-old woman from an unloving, white-trash background, and her reluctant trainer/manager is Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a cantankerous, world-weary veteran who is trying to learn Gaelic and apparently goes to church mainly to needle his pastor. Much of the story is subtly conveyed in voiceovers by Eddie “Scrap” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former Dunn fighter who lost an eye while failing to win a championship and now presides with warmth and understanding over the day-to-day activities in Frankie’s L.A. gym, the “Hit Pit.”

Scrap lends Maggie the special bag Frankie used in speed punching and knows how to overcome his boss’s initial resistance to working with a woman fighter. Much of the narration is presented as a letter Scrap is writing to Frankie’s apparently long-estranged daughter, to tell her “what kind of a man her father was.” Frankie’s sense of fatalistic melancholy suits the deep sense of caution he learned as a fight manager as well as Mr. Eastwood’s own instinctive restraint, both as actor and director. It shows itself in the deliberately leisurely pace of the film’s development, which includes bits and pieces from day-to-day life in the “Hit Pit.” “Million Dollar Baby” helps us understand the deep appeal of boxing while stripping away its glamour; its atmosphere is so authentic we begin to care about the finer points of footwork Frankie is trying to teach the eager but impatient Maggie.

There is excitement in Maggie’s early successes as a fighter, but what is even more compelling is the slow growth of deep affection between the cautious Frankie, who continues to read Yeats even in the gym, and the impetuous young woman ready to stake her life on the desperate hope of becoming a champion. The older man makes it clear that he has to be absolute boss, which is as much a clue as we are given as to why letters to his daughter are returned unopened. Fortunately, the movie isn’t about a grand romance that bridges the generations, but about the real love that develops between two emotionally needy people.

Mr. Eastwood shows a kind of genius in choosing roles a strong, older male actor is ideally equipped to play. By now, of course, we know he is also a gifted director of actors. He has worked with Mr. Freeman before, and it is deeply satisfying to see the strength and ease of the exchanges between Frankie and Scrap -- protective reserve competing with instinctive warmth. As for Ms. Swank, still remembered for her Academy Award performance in “Boys Don’t Cry,” she is totally convincing as the waitress determined to be a boxer, practicing her foot movements even in the restaurant. She went through rigorous training and put on pounds of muscle to play the role, but her intensity only increases the power of her occasional smiles.

The screenplay by Paul Haggis is based on F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns, a collection of short stories by an author who knew the fight game from the inside. We have time to observe what goes into building a contender and what strategies are required to arrange a championship fight. The script is so strong that it’s hard not to notice occasional exaggerations, as in the treatment of Maggie’s family and the somewhat melodramatic nature of the ending. More disappointing is the film’s failure to complete the earlier, brittle exchanges between Frankie and the priest with one of greater depth as the climax approaches. But Mr. Eastwood obviously has no interest in edifying endings; he has risked all he could in this film by having Frankie read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” to Maggie and finally even shedding tears.

Hotel Rwanda is hard to treat simply as a movie experience since its subject is the 1994 nightmare in Rwanda, when 800,000 of its citizens were slaughtered while the world managed to go on with business as usual. To reduce its scope to manageable size, director Terry George centers the action on Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), manager of the fashionable Milles Collines hotel in Kigali, the nation’s capital, along with his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and their family. Early reviewers have referred to Mr. Rusesabagina as the Oskar Schindler of Rwanda, a man who used his skills as a wheeler-dealer to save more than 1,200 of his fellow citizens during the murderous assault of Hutu extremists against a long-dominant Tutsi minority. Mr. Cheadle does a superb job in conveying his combination of diplomatic style and upper-class reserve. While it does not have the epic range and dramatic complexity of “Schindler’s List,” “Hotel Rwanda” is an achievement that deserves widespread support.

The director, who first drew attention as the screenwriter of “In the Name of the Father,” shows us lots of dead bodies, but achieves the desired impact without emphasis on gruesome details. The hero achieves a kind of victory by preserving order, making his hotel an oasis of relative calm; bribing a Hutu general; phoning the Belgian owners of the hotel to put pressure on the French, who are providing the Hutus with weapons; and insisting that his staff maintain the hotel’s reputation for service and order. Since we have a strong sense of the massacres occurring nearby, scenes of Hutu and Tutsi children dancing merrily in the hotel ballroom take on extra poignancy.

The relations between Paul and his wife, Tatiana, is especially moving, since Paul is a Hutu, his wife a Tutsi. The film’s emotional high point comes when Paul decides not to go with her and their children in a U.N. convoy to bring those with travel visas for foreign countries to safety. “I cannot leave these people [those left behind in the hotel] to die,” he cries out to a frantic Tatiana. As it turns out, the convoy is unable to get through and is forced to return to the hotel.

Mr. Cheadle is impressive at subtly conveying the gradual loss of Paul’s illusions regarding international support. At first, when a TV cameraman captures footage of some of the atrocities, he is sure that the outside world will rush to the rescue after seeing it, but the cynical reporter assures him that Europeans and Americans will simply sigh and go on with their dinners. What has greater impact on Paul is the way in which a U.N. effort to find safe haven for those in the hotel is extended only to its European guests, and the news crews depart with them. Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte), head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, is genuinely outraged at the role he is forced to play, but is unable to offer any resistance to the slaughter going on around him.

Despite its shocking subject matter, “Hotel Rwanda” won people’s choice awards at the recent Toronto and Los Angeles film festivals. Audiences probably realized that it took the world 100 days to respond to Rwanda, and that after 21 months it has not yet found a way to halt the horror in Darfur, Sudan. Mr. Rusesabagina, who was present at the Los Angeles screening, said, “My wish is that you will be messengers who will tell other people about what you have seen. The tragedy in Rwanda was only recognized as genocide after the fact. It is time that Africa be considered as a continent, and that its people be recognized as human beings and given the same human rights as people all over the world.”

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2005

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