Seattle's most influential film pundit, Michael Medved, is picking a fight with Clint Eastwood. The conservative radio host and Wall Street Journal contributor first laid into the Oscars for snubbing The Passion of the Christ in favor of bad-values movies: abortion (Vera Drake), sex (Kinsey), and assisted suicide (The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby). Being the brightest Oscar hopeful among that group, Eastwood's MDB instantly became the central casus belli. Both Rush Limbaugh and Mercer Island's Rabbi Daniel Lapin soon joined Medved's side, while some disabled groups bitterly protested the film's ending, in which Bellingham-raised Hilary Swank chooses death after getting paralyzed in the ring. The organization Not Dead Yet claimed the film "promotes the killing of disabled people."
Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd swiftly counterpunched Medved in The New York Times; so did Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper, and Jim Emerson, the Seattle-based editor of the RogerEbert.com Web site. Meanwhile, Medved is promoting a big new book, Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons From a Controversial Life (Crown, $26.95). This prompted Emerson to write on the Ebert site: "These guys are partisan opportunists, not movie critics, and assuming loud and outraged positions is how they make their living."
In a recent e-mail exchange, Medved insists he's misunderstood. "The idea that I've been leading some sort of 'jihad' or 'crusade' against Eastwood is absurd. I admire Eastwood, just as everyone else does. I do believe, however, that Million Dollar Baby takes an unmistakably sympathetic view of assisted suicide."
But in his e-mail, Medved cites it as only one of many examples of Hollywood's "longstanding hostility to religious traditionalism." In USA Today, he lambastes an "almost pathological discomfort with the traditional religiosity embraced by most of its mass audience." He believes that Eastwood's studio, Warner Bros., sneakily tried to trick audiences into thinking MDB is upbeat, triumphalist entertainment. "It's a very dishonest film," he told The Jerusalem Post. "It's been marketed like an updated Rocky, when in reality it's a right-to-die movie."
IN REsPONSE, Ebert and many others protest that the studio and critics didn't reveal the choose-death plot twist because spoiler- hating viewers would storm their offices like the torch-wielding villagers in Frankenstein. This spoiler aversion prompted The Los Angeles Times to ridicule the entire film-reviewing establishment for meekly serving the industry instead of acting like grown-ups covering the news. Medved mostly agrees with the Times position, though he—like Seattle Weekly's January review—danced around the movie's essential facts to minimize spoilers.
Is that more or less dishonest than the studio ads? Is Medved trying to have it both ways? Emerson, who once spent two hours debating Medved, complains to SW, "He just backs off when somebody offers a counterexample or contrary opinion." Then there's Seattle critic Jeff Shannon, a quadriplegic who's written in The Seattle Times and nationally about MDB: "I can see where Medved is coming from. As a moral watchdog, he has a reason to do this." But Shannon busts him on a factual error: "Medved says the movie overtly states that what Frank [Eastwood's character] does is heroic, and that is nowhere in the movie. Eastwood's personal view is that Frank didn't do the right thing, and he's a doomed man. It's like a film noir." Shannon says Eastwood had this to say about "that guy Medved" and his punditry: "If you hate something so badly, maybe you should look within."
Shannon calls himself "schizophrenic" about the film. As a critic, he loves it, yet he winces at the way it stacks the deck against a quadriplegic being able to lead a productive life. In an e-mail to SW, he argues, "While everyone is buzzing about right- to-die issues, plot spoilers, and morality in popular culture, the very legitimate concerns of the most neglected and misunderstood minority on the planet are de-emphasized or completely dismissed. It all boils down to this: The concerns of the disabled protesters are justified, but there's more than one way to interpret the film."
In his e-mail, Medved accuses critics of "ginning up this controversy out of nothing—in order to boost the movie's Oscar chances. . . . They're trying to gain sympathy for Eastwood by portraying him as facing a furious assault by a brigade of archconservative mountebanks. By voting for Clint and his movie, you can cast an emphatic vote against Medved and Medvedism."
Perhaps the best way to approach the controversy, and much more, is to emulate Shannon, whom Ebert quotes in his Web site essay on the MDB contretemps: "I look at life the way I look at a good movie—I can't wait to see what happens next."