'Whiplash' and the Troubling Notion of Success by Any Means Necessary

-Doc Coyle

In the wake of three wins at the Academy Awards highlighted by J.K. Simmons seemingly inevitable taking of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, jazz master class meets boot camp themed film, Whiplash, is very fresh in my mind. Like many other viewers, I have to say that I flat-out loved the film, and also like many others, the film affected me in a very personal way. I am a (self taught) career musician, and my father is a piano teacher with a robust jazz background. Although music is the tool that Whiplash wields, music could be a placeholder for any obsessive passion that we seek to perfect. Be it football, ballet, the military, or any environment that’s meant to be tutorial and academic, we’ve all been under the thumb of a superior who we are trusting has our best interest at heart, while holding kernels of wisdom still mysterious to us. That power imbalance is something we’ve all felt, and is the reason why Whiplash touched a nerve with so many.

Last week, a moment struck me as troubling in regards to Whiplash. I was discussing the film with my roommate’s friend (Let’s call him “Barry”), and his takeaway was that Whiplash had inspired him to work harder, and that he should push himself more to succeed and be great. I was flummoxed. Did he see the same film I saw? (Spoiler Alert) I saw the film’s protagonist, Andrew Neiman, (played by Miles Teller) almost die foolishly in a car wreck trying to make it to a performance. Conductor, Terence Fletcher (played by Simmons), was held responsible for an ex-student’s suicide. Neiman only succeeds in the film’s finale in spite of Fletcher’s plot to ambush him. I did not see a tough love allegory hidden beneath the muck. I saw a bad guy, who probably had good intentions at some point, but whose methodology had gone off the rails by way of physical, emotional, and mental abuse. What was I missing?

Barry’s takeway is essentially the "Wall Street Effect." This phenomena is what occurred when Oliver Stone made the 1987 film, Wall Street, about the greed and recklessness of the financial industry. Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) is supposed to be the bad guy in the film, but every Alex P. Keaton wannabe jackoff in a sweater vest took Gecko’s infamous "Greed is good" speech as a rallying cry to get into finance.

After some thought, it wasn’t difficult to put myself in Barry’s shoes and see where he were coming from. This is America after all; home of modern capitalism and the mythos of the fierce individual and self-made man. "Success" may mean different things to different people, but it is a measurable commodity in America. Our value system dictates that we measure greatness in wealth accrued. I too, am not immune to these values. I have curiously examined the entrepreneurial spirit of great men like Jay Z and Steve Jobs, in the aims of following their path and crack the code to great success.

It’s probably obvious that hard work and dedication is at the root of success, but Americans seem to be infatuated with the idea of hard work. We love telling people how hard we are working in real life and on social media. Hashtags like #RiseAndGrind and #NoDaysOff are prominent in conjunction with posting endless gym selfies indicating your peerless self-discipline and motivational quotes from Pinterest with a snazzy font in the foreground of a stoic landscape that indicates that’s you do lots of hiking in the midst of deep thought.

Ambition is America’s most prized value, but at what point does the equation become murky? What is the price of ambition? What would you be willing to give up for success? Your loved ones, your health, your morality?

The coaching style of breaking people’s spirits through abusive tactics are most effective and commonly used in getting people to take orders and comply as a group in 2 arenas: sports and the military.

It’s difficult not to draw a comparison to Whiplash and the first (and better) half of the film, Full Metal Jacket, which iconically depicts an overbearing and abusive Drill Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), who takes it too far and pushes the overwhelmed Private “Pile” (Vincent D’Onofrio) to suicide and murder. To what degree the rigorousness of military training should be is not my area of expertise, but a key point to take away from the film is that we all have different thresholds to which we can withstand. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Human development should be customizable to fit each person’s abilities and personalities.

A recent theme that has been common among aging social critics is that we are becoming too soft in the realm of child rearing and discipline, subsequently leading to a cultural decline. This opens up a whole other can of worms about the current debate on corporeal punishment, which I don’t want to get into and personally have little contextual knowledge considering I don’t have children. But, it is children who encounter these types of environments while participating in team sports, and can be subject to questionable methods of tutelage.

Sports can be a great thing for young people. It builds character and teaches you leadership, teamwork, and about pushing through adversity. I don’t think every kid should get a participation trophy or receive unearned self-esteem. Losing is part of the game and part of life. Dealing with that and overcoming the valleys of life is all part of maturing into adulthood, but going too far with pressuring and pushing young people can have devastating consequences.

I implore everyone to watch a documentary from an HBO series, State of Play called “Trophy Kids” by director Peter Berg. It is heartbreaking to watch these kids give their all, while their abusive, delusional parents actually undermine their children’s development because of the pressure and overreaching tactics brought on by ambition gone astray.

Examining “Trophy Kids” really illuminates the most important question in this debate: Do aggressive, harsh methods of education really work? Barry thought having a “mentor” like Terrence Fletcher was just the type of motivator he needed to take him to the next level: Someone to slap him in the face or someone to throw a cymbal at his head. This was the motivation needed.

For Barry to say that being virtually tortured is the threshold to which those that want to be successful should be able to endure just reads false. Perhaps, this is my personal philosophical disposition informed by my own life experience and biases, but there has to be data gathered that have measured the most efficient educational styles.

Is it the carrot or the stick that pushes people? The answer is elusive, because I think it depends on what you are trying to motivate the person to do. Fear of the whip might motivate slaves to farm a field, but I’m not sure if you could intimidate someone into creating a classic work of art or inventing something will progress humanity.

If given the choice of subjecting oneself to three or four years of physical and mental abuse would lead to big success and wealth down the line, many, if not most people would probably sign up for that deal. We have to look at someone like Michael Jackson, whose success is partly owed to his overbearing father’s abuse and strict management and training. Conversely Jackson’s troubles later in life were due, at least in part, by the emotional and mental baggage as a result of childhood abuse and imprisoned infrastructure.

I think ambition is a good thing overall. Human being’s ambition to shoot for the stars is perhaps the most “human” characteristic that exists. To be docile and devolved as a species is repulsive to me. Work hard, do great work, but "at all costs" is over the line. A big house and important sounding title won’t save you if there is a broken human inside your psyche. Martyrdom is overrated.

But if you’re still in need of a pep talk, please enjoy Alec Baldwin’s rousing call-to-arms from Glengarry Glen Ross.

[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classic]