I doubt that it will win “Best Picture” at the Oscar (though the consensus seems to be that J.K. Simmons, who dominates the film, has “Best Supporting Actor” in the bag), but “Whiplash” is the best film of the year that explores an ethics conundrum of long standing.
Without spoiling the film for those of you—the odds say a majority—who haven’t seen it, let me explain why.
“Whiplash” is ostensibly about a gifted music student’s quest to become not merely a good but a great jazz drummer. On the way, he encounters a fanatic, merciless, manipulative and demanding teacher (Simmons) who sees the young man’s passion and potential and is determined to either make his greatness bloom or break him trying. The movie raises the eternal question of the ethical obligation of the gifted to use their gifts to enrich society, culture and mankind. Arturo Toscanini once berated Bing Crosby for “wasting” his once-in-a-lifetime voice on popular music rather than opera. Is possession of a remarkable ability or talent something that forces the possessor to live an altruistic existence, subordinating his or her own desires to what will most benefit others? Is it unethical to refuse, to choose another path, one that is less daunting, easier, more relaxing, surer, without the stress, without the burden of chasing perfection and extraordinary success?
In “Whiplash, ” it appears that the prodigy has already made the choice to reach his potential. Simmons, however, realizes, as his student does not, how much pain and sacrifice is required. So important is the objective of not allowing a potential great to fail to take full advantage of a rare accident of genetics (or a divine blessing), that Simmons believes other, lesser human beings must be sacrificed as well.
We learn that the Simmons character sees it as his sacred duty to make sure that a great talent reaches full potential, no matter what brutality and cruelty is necessary to get it there. It’s a frightening spectacle, and a disturbing theory.
Is the character right? Let’s put aside the question of whether his methodology is the correct and effective way to accomplish that goal. You can consider that when you see the movie. I think it is possible to push brilliant students to achieve without making them want to quit or have a psychotic break.
I also believe that in part, Simmons is correct, and history supports his belief. The truly great is any field are obsessive; their values are warped to view one thing, and one thing only, as their life’s goal. Great achievers tend to be narrow and afflicted with tunnel vision; great men and women are often, even usually, poor spouses, neglectful parents, manipulating friends and ruthless colleagues. When your attention is focused like a laser on one goal, like being the greatest baseball hitter that ever lived (Ted Williams), or being the most brilliant composer (Mozart), or the greatest chess player (Bobby Fischer), or the most successful bodybuilder (Arnold Schwarzenegger), you sacrifice a lot of life’s variety and diversity on the way to giving civilization something special.
You also risk becoming a monster. Teachers and mentors like Simmons are intentionally building monsters, because they view the reward, immortal contributions to civilization and culture, as worth the undeniable harm to the individuals possessing the seed of greatness.
Is it necessary and noble for an artist, athlete or leader to sacrifice their humanity for the greater good? Is it selfish, a sin, a crime, for someone gifted with brilliance to choose to be a good and emotionally sound person rather than an important one? Is the mentor, parent or teacher who pushes a young genius to the breaking point as a way of ensuring that his or her gift isn’t lost to the world ethical, or is the teacher perverse?
I have been troubled by this question, as a lifetime dilettante who chose to do many things (arguably) well rather than any one thing brilliantly, most of my life, and was, very early, chastised about that choice by a teacher who could have been played by J.K. Simmons, though in drag.
See “Whiplash,” and let me know what you think.