Do the Means Justify the End?
DIRECTED BY DAMIEN CHAZELLE/2014
Films do something interesting. They push you to succeed in whatever passion you have by showing examples of characters doing the same. In Whiplash, the displayed passion is jazz. More specifically, a jazz drummer. That is Andrew’s (Miles Teller) dream. He wants to be a jazz drummer. Scratch that, he wants to be the BEST jazz drummer. You may not care a lick about jazz or drumming, but his drive is addictive and easy to place in whatever passion you have.
But films do something else interesting. They rarely focus on the consequences of your drive to push yourself, and even if the consequences are shown, they are usually dismissed at the end and shown to be worth it all. You may break a few eggs, make a few enemies, upset a girl or boy you are in love with, but it doesn’t matter because in the end your passion is achieved, and all of those broken eggs are put back together and everyone comes running back, with open arms, and they admit they were wrong and you were completely right now that they have seen the results of your selfish aspirations.
J.K. Simmons plays Terrence Fletcher, in a performance that the Academy will be recognizing this year, as a drill sergeant-like music instructor. He is the one who will both push Andrew and help break those eggs. Terrence represents everything great about this movie, he is a character you cannot put your finger on. He is a monster while instructing. But he is warm and kind when he is viewed interacting with kids and strangers. He is encouraging in private with his student, but he humiliates Andrew (and everyone) in public. And his humiliations are hinting at a personal issue he may have with himself and his past inadequacies. He doesn’t necessarily say “good” or “bad” when scolding a student on their performance, thus implying a universal and objective code of quality, but rather continuously says “not my tempo”. He needs to be the center of the criticism.
Andrew needs to impress him. And does so by practicing his butt off. We see the sweat, agony and blood, yes blood, of his enduring commitment. He is as determined to be as good as Terrence wants him to be.
But this movie is not Dangerous Minds, or any other movie where the leader is right but tough. If what Terrence is doing to his students is right or wrong is indeed questioned in the film but never truly answered. Because in life, the answers are not there. We strive for greatness. Hollywood tells us to be great. Maybe because Hollywood is made of a sum of people who risked everything to be what they are and need that assurance while entertaining us. But that mindset of the ends justifying the means is not pervasive throughout the world. Buddhists will tell us that low aspirations and simple pleasures lead to a fulfilling life. You meet a caring and honest girl at a movie theater, as Andrew does when he meets Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and you make her happy. You have a supportive and caring father, as Andrew does with Jim (Paul Reiser), and you keep that close bond with him. Is that not enough for a happy life?
There’s no answer. Andrew does not believe so. He does not see the flaws in Terrence’s leadership/abuse. He wants to be everything Terrence wants him to be, even if Terrence’s vision leads down a dark path. A path that can meet a fork in the road, where you can become the greatest or take your own life. And everything you know about what a dream is and the worth of achieving it will be questioned by this film. If you want a feel-good movie, it may not necessarily be this movie, but some parts do feel so good. If you want a dark and pessimistic movie, it’s not necessarily this movie, though some parts are so dark and so cynical.
Director Damien Chazelle came out of nowhere with this movie. He has a few credits as a writer on films, including the atrocious The Last Exorcism Part II, which there is absolutely no thematic connection this movie in any way whatsoever, so I’m going to go ahead and assume this movie is the first film that is 100% Chazelle’s creation and a promising view of his career. And what Whiplash will provide is a lot of questions about life; about success; and about filmmaking. And I am confident in saying that is a perfect movie, and represents everything that is right about cinema.