Film critics really like to talk about technique. They will discuss at length the composition of shots and frames, analyze the pacing and beats of a film, and praise (or dismiss) the skills of the actors. This is all fine, but I would rather discuss what the film is saying—what message is being conveyed. Artistic competency is very important; its presence or absence makes a huge difference in whether a film’s message is heard or ignored, and there are few things more annoying that a preachy film with something to say, but without a shred of artistic merit. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is not one of those films. It tells the story of Andrew Niemann, a young jazz drummer who is determined to be the best in the world, and Terrence Fletcher, the teacher who pushes him to the extreme—and it tells their story with superb excellence. But I’m not going to talk about any of the film’s artistic merits; there are more competent critics who can better analyze those matters. I will only discuss the philosophical questions presented by the film: what is greatness? What is required to achieve greatness? And above all, the fundamental question: did Andrew make the right choice? I believe the movie has quite a lot to say about the first two questions. The third is not even asked explicitly but is certainly hinted at. The answer might not be what you think. And the film has an important lesson for Christians, which I will get to in the end.
So, what is greatness, anyway? Is it the same as success? Probably not—a person can be successful at what they do, but they might not be remembered for it after they are gone from this earth. What remains of us after our death? Pay attention to how Andrew defines greatness, in the scene where a family dinner turns tense (the key dialogue starts at 1:59 in this clip).
Andrew is not contented with being a successful jazz drummer—he wants to transcend what is expected of him and become, in today’s overused phrase, a game-changer. Nothing else matters to him; he is single-minded in his pursuit of the secular culture’s version of immortality.
And is there a limit to the lengths that one can go to achieve greatness? “But do you think there’s a line?” Andrew asks Fletcher, after seeing him play the piano at a jazz club and realizing that he is more than just his nemesis. “You know—where you discourage the next Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker?” Terrence Fletcher’s response sums up the film’s position: “No. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.” This movie is has nothing to say about genius, or ethics. There is no “line” for the person who wants greatness. No cost is too much.
Does Fletcher push Andrew too far? Absolutely not. He never pushed him at all. Andrew pushes himself. Andrew never does anything against his own will, or his better judgment, except to denounce Fletcher. Fletcher never forces Andrew to do anything, which is why he can say with good conscience “I will never regret how I tried.” All he ever did was help people push themselves.
Compare how Andrew looks after he “earns the part” after auditioning for hours in the studio band classroom (exhausted, broken), with how he looks while playing his ecstatic solo at the JVC festival (exultant). He has pushed himself far enough—he is there—and he knows it. He is not truly confident until he knows that he is great. Look at how his nervousness while talking to Nicole is transformed into confidence at the exact moment that their breakup is confirmed. He is only certain of himself when he is following the path that will take him to greatness.
This movie has quite a lot of blood—all of it Andrew’s blood. Andrew drums until his skin breaks, at home, at the studio classroom, and at the JVC festival. He gets into a car wreck, mangles his face and hand, and bleeds all over the kit and Fletcher. Really, Andrew, is it worth all the blood? Of course it is—to him. But is it objectively worth it? This is the unspoken question that the film compels us to ask. Is Andrew a hero or a loser? Did he make the right choice, questing for greatness without regard for cost?
Ultimately we all have to decide the answer for ourselves. Damien Chazelle doesn’t tell us what to think; although greatness can be objectively evaluated, the quest for greatness only has meaning in a subjective sense. Andrew’s intensity of vision is to be applauded, and there is an important application for Christians. Andrew is a splendid example of how the Christian should pursue holiness. The Bible contains numerous injunctions for Christians to resist sin to the uttermost extreme: “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin”, says Hebrews 12:4. When Christians watch Whiplash, they should apply Andrew’s lesson to their lives, and fight against sinfulness with the same fury.