There are a lot of movies about inspiring teachers that bring out the best in their students and show the remarkable power that a dedicated and supportive teacher can have on the lives of their students.
Whiplash is not one of those movies.
It’s important that you realize that going in, because if you think you are getting something along the lines of Mr. Holland’s Opus or Stand and Deliver, you are in for one hell of a shock. Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) teaching philosophy is much closer to that of a Bobby Knight – there’s a whole of lot of yelling, there is little room for error and you may or may not have to duck things that are being thrown at you. This is a tense and riveting look at a different kind of teacher/student relationship and questions the lengths people should go to in order to achieve greatness.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew, a first year music student at Shaffer Conservatory, a one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. Andrew is a drummer and is trying to catch the eye of conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), a legendary instructor at the school whom Andrew thinks can help him achieve the legendary greatness that he aspires to. Fletcher finally invites Andrew to join his ensemble as a backup, but Andrew quick realizes that Fletcher has more in common with a drill sergeant than your run of the mill teacher; Andrew is shocked that students stand silently and bow their heads, averting any eye contact, when Fletcher enters the room. Fletcher’s kind and comforting words to Andrew after the first class were revealed to be a ruse simply to obtain personal information about Andrew so Fletcher would know what buttons to push to get a reaction out of Andrew. Fletcher’s philosophy can be summed up with this one line of dialogue: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”
Andrew suffers but also becomes more resolved; after being publicly humiliated in a class, Andrew practices the drums until his hands bleed. He cuts off any outside distractions, including a budding relationship with a girl he has quietly liked for a while, and becomes hardened and more determined. Drumming becomes his obsession, to the detriment of his psychological well-being. This is a sacrifice that Andrew is willing to make to be the best at what he does. Andrew and Fletcher seem to share the same world view that suffering is a necessary part of the commitment to your craft.
This probably makes it sound like Whiplash is tough to watch and I’ll admit that for me there were scenes that were a little difficult to witness. Seeing other people suffering or humiliated, even fictional people on screen, is tough for someone with my emotional makeup to handle. But despite the occasional struggle, I couldn’t look away from Whiplash. The story was too compelling and I just wasn’t sure how it was going to resolve itself; would Andrew finally snap? Would this type of instruction ultimately make his stronger and better? Would there ever be an end to the sadistic manner of Fletcher’s composing? Would there be any sort of comeuppance for Fletcher? I had to watch to see how this would all play out and I admit that I didn’t quite see the story ending up like it did. Teller and Simmons bring these characters to life in such a real way that it’s easy to forget that they are playing a role; in a year of great performances, both of these actors stood out.
The most interesting part of the movie for me was the philosophical questions that it raises about suffering, motivation and praise. On some level, I tend to agree with Fletcher’s philosophy – the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality can be very detrimental. When praise is too frequent and effusive, it ultimately becomes ineffective and meaningless. I’ve had colleagues that heap superlatives and praise on just about everything – like Donald Trump level hyperbole – and while I think that they think they are being helpful, no one took the words remotely seriously because it was too often and too much to ring sincere. Simply doing my job is not “awe-inspiring” or “extraordinary.” In my opinion, telling people that they are awesome all the time makes them lazy and complacent. They drink the Kool-Aid and begin to think that they are pretty great and that everything they do is pretty great. I do my best work when I am trying to prove someone wrong that who has doubted my abilities or if I am trying to earn commendation from someone who is more Spartan in their compliments. A well-time and heartfelt compliment that I feel I have earned is much more meaningful than praise that feels routine or insincere. When I taught college courses, I gave praise when I thought it was legitimately appropriate and corrected students when they were wrong; my students said that I was “strict but fair.” By happenstance, this is the quote of the day on my office whiteboard:
So I can’t say that Fletcher’s thoughts don’t have some veracity or that he is completely off base. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to approval.
Of course, Fletcher takes this to the extreme and I think that is where the damage can be done. There is a difference between being judicious in your compliments and abuse and Fletcher crosses that line. He specifically seeks out a student’s vulnerabilities and uses them against them. Tough love is sometimes necessary to push people to reach the best of their abilities, but degrading language and physical assaults are a different story. That’s not motivation; that’s just cruelty and psychological warfare and while that may work for some people, it is too high a price to pay. It’s good to push people, but pushing people over the edge is a horse of a different color. The difficulty, of course, is knowing how individual people will respond; what might motivate one person might discourage another. Andrew may ultimately turn into the great drummer that he always wanted, but at what cost? Do the true greats have to suffer to become great? Whiplash has made me ponder a lot of these questions and while the world view that Fletcher and Andrew have is destructive, is it ultimately successful?
Whiplash was an interesting film to watch, but it has also made me think about the issues that it addresses long after the film ended. To me, that’s the sign of a great film and while it may not be the most relaxing or fun movie to watch, I think it’s worth seeing and contemplating the philosophical models presented. Ultimately, the school of thought that Fletcher belongs to swings the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, but that’s not to say that there isn’t some merit to his thinking – though the execution is harmful. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller both give captivating performances that you can’t take your eyes off of, no matter how dark and troubling the story becomes.
Whiplash is currently in wide release.