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I saw Birdman. Interesting movie. Michael Keaton was terrific. I never need to see it again. The first thing I did after watching Whiplash was to buy the Blu-ray.
What makes Whiplash so superb is that it doesn’t take the stock, convenient approach to its characters—the approach that a lesser film might have taken. A Whiplash in which J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher is purely an evil, sadistic taskmaster and Miles Teller’s Andrew Nieman is simply the sympathetic underdog could have been a decent movie. Forgettable, but decent.
***Obvious spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Whiplash, don’t read any further***
The reason Whiplash is a great movie is that Nieman isn’t a one-dimensional, by-the-numbers protagonist. He’s a warts-and-all fledgling genius. The audience roots for him early on because there’s an awkwardness about him as he tries to navigate life at the Shaffer Conservatory. He also gains sympathy because of the abuse he takes from Dr. Fletcher.
Those sympathetic feelings are complicated when it becomes plain that Nieman can dish out abuse of his own.
He’s not just a scrappy kid who stands up to an overbearing authority figure. He’s a prodigy who callously dumps his girlfriend because he foresees her future interference with his ultimate goals. He’s a band member who alienates and distances himself from his fellow players on a regular basis. He’s a family member who belittles his cousin’s football accomplishments because they’re achieved at the Division III level.
In fact, I think a dinner scene that includes the mockery of his own relatives might be the key scene in the movie—or at least the key scene that doesn’t involve Dr. Fletcher.
That dinner includes a moment in which the plot could have veered off into vanilla storytelling, where Nieman’s discussion of his own accomplishments gets drowned out by the bravado of his cousins and their proud parents. Instead of continuing down that well-worn cinematic path by having Nieman sheepishly resign himself to being a tortured, under-appreciated genius, he speaks up. He then goes several steps further, taking his confidence into arrogance territory and causing the viewer to rethink who the “good guy” actually is in the scene. Moreover, Nieman makes some cruel yet compelling points about the nature of true success, largely at the expense of others at the table.
Cruel yet compelling: That’s the fascinating Dr. Fletcher. Like Nieman, he appears fairly one-dimensional at first blush. Black, not gray.
He ostensibly personifies much of what contemporary society hates. He verbally, psychologically, and, on one occasion, physically abuses Nieman. He’s Bobby Knight in a tight, black t-shirt. He berates his students constantly, using personal information against them, questioning and mocking their sexuality, and hurling ethnic slurs and folding chairs with equal dexterity.
He is, in short, that most lamentable, contemptible, irredeemable creature in twenty-first-century American life: The bully.
The essence of the movie is Fletcher’s philosophy, revealed to us in explicit detail during a scene late in the film. Fletcher, now fired by the Shaffer Conservatory thanks to Nieman’s anonymous testimony, explains that there was a very deliberate aim in his abrasive, caustic style:
I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any [expletive] moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them.
I believe that is an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker . . . Parker’s a young kid, pretty good on the sax. Gets up to play at a cutting session, and he [expletives] it up. And Jones nearly decapitates him for it. And he’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night, but the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And he practices and he practices with one goal in mind, never to be laughed at again.
And a year later, he goes back to the Reno and he steps up on that stage, and plays the best [expletive] solo the world has ever heard. So, imagine if Jones had just said: “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job.” And then Charlie thinks to himself, “Well, [expletive], I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. People wonder why jazz is dying.
In the final scene, Nieman realizes Fletcher’s abuse isn’t over. After being humiliated when Fletcher conducts a song for which Nieman has no sheet music, Nieman runs offstage, greeted by the warm embrace of his loving father. Again, a lesser movie probably continues along that trajectory, with the father and son leaving together after the son realizes that, hey, music’s not the most important thing in the world!
But this movie doesn’t do that.
Nieman returns to the stage, of course, and takes over. And he doesn’t do it to spite Fletcher. He does it to prove himself, once and for all. He does it to ascend to that first rung of genuine greatness—not against an angry Fletcher’s wishes, but in collaboration with an ultimately ecstatic Fletcher, who has finally discovered what he’s sought his entire career.
Here’s the crux of it . . .
Fletcher is a monster.
Fletcher is dangerous.
Fletcher is right.
I found myself nodding and agreeing with Fletcher as he explained his central thesis to Nieman in the bar. Like many people probably did, I had the “but it can go too far, right?” thought just as Nieman raised that same point with Fletcher. Fletcher explains that a Charlie Parker would never be discouraged by an imaginary line being crossed, because a Charlie Parker would never get discouraged, period. Nieman instantly recognizes the truth of that statement.
What we’re left with as viewers is the reality that, despite the seductive nature of an easy life free of conflict or stress or rejection or failure, it is precisely those conditions that extract greatness from us. The Fletcher character presents the most extreme form of that philosophy possible outside of a military setting, and he still winds up validated. Whether it’s worth crushing a thousand pieces of coal into dust in order to find that one, perfect diamond is a value judgment the viewer has to make for himself.
With all the talk/hand-wringing about American Sniper being a “conservative” film, I was amazed when I watched Whiplash that I hadn’t heard more commentary in that vein about Damien Chazelle’s story of Andrew Nieman and Dr. Fletcher.
Maybe it’s because the notion of man-made hardship maximizing potential has fallen so completely out-of-favor that it isn’t even recognized as an idea with a political label. It’s not “conservative,” or even “old-fashioned.” It’s not even “passe.” It’s merely “bad.”
The ever-expanding definition of “bullying” is so toxic as to silence those who might think some version, at least, of Fletcher’s methods have value. Today, anything we might call “bullying” (and there’s no doubt that Fletcher’s tactics correctly fall under that heading) is immediately dismissed as purely destructive and without value. There was a time when most of society accepted the opposite proposition.
Now, we’re left with a lot of people like Jim (Paul Reiser), Andrew’s father. Jim Neiman is the opposite of Fletcher: He’s kind, fun, supportive, understanding, and compassionate. He encourages his son to testify against Fletcher so that Fletcher can’t intimidate anyone else ever again.
Jim has a lot of positive qualities that we would want in a friend, a coworker, or an advocate. He’s a “modern” father, but he actually more closely resembles a traditional mother figure. On the other hand, Dr. Fletcher is quite obviously Andrew’s true father figure.
I was shocked when I came to the conclusion that Jim is very subtly the villain of the film.
Jim’s support of his son leads to Andrew Nieman putting his drum kit away. He gives up on his dreams because pursuing them was very difficult, both physically and emotionally. This is the easy path of which I spoke earlier. This is the path of dates with pretty co-eds from Fordham. This is the path of watching movies and eating popcorn with your dad. This is the path of normalcy.
But it is not the path of greatness.
Look at Jim’s life: He’s a high-school English teacher who fancies himself a writer but has never gotten anything published. He is who Andrew Nieman becomes if Andrew never talks to Fletcher again after leaving Shaffer. We can imagine it easily—the dusty drumkit that only comes out of storage when Andrew Nieman’s 1.5 kids start asking questions about it. Nieman finds a perfectly content, normal life, possibly as a middle school bandleader or as a high school music teacher or an insurance salesman who plays an odd gig here and there.
He and the world would never know what they were missing.
Fletcher, the monster, extracts this greatness. In the end, he’s a hero—albeit a nasty, mean one.
This is why I was surprised I hadn’t heard Whiplash bandied about as a movie that’s “too conservative.” I think it’s the most conservative critically-acclaimed film I’ve seen sinceThe Incredibles. The very important principle in Whiplash that is arguably the take-home message of the film is that, sometimes, we need nasty, mean people to do nasty, mean things to make us—and society—better.
That’s the contradiction that’s so difficult for many to admit, much less embrace. Those things that hurt our feelings, make us cry, enrage us, frustrate us, and—gasp!—lower our self-esteem in the short run can also sometimes make us the best version of ourselves that we could ever be in the long run.
Sometimes, in other words, the monster is the hero.
(Note: A version of this review originally appeared at my blog, here.)