Of the movies nominated for Best Picture at this year’s upcoming Oscars awards ceremony on February 22, American Sniper and Selma each offer a different perspective of America and US society. The former depicts the war in Iraq via the prism of US exceptionalism, a ‘window’ inviting its audience to participate or collude in a revisionist history in which the Iraqis are portrayed as a barbaric horde and the US troops as patriots trying to bring civilization and democracy to an ungrateful populace.
Selma, meanwhile, holds a ‘mirror’ up to the ugly truth of America’s past, a recent past whose wounds remain open given the ongoing issue of police brutality against young black men and social indicators that reveal the gap between whites and blacks is the same as it was when MLK declared “I have a dream” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in 1963.
It is arguable, however, that another nomination for Best Picture comes closest to understanding America, its psyche, and the ethos upon which it was built and exists. Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, takes us on a journey into the dark heart of ruthless ambition, individualism, and the insatiable hunger for success that describes the reality behind the myth of the American Dream.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young man with a dream. It is to become one of the “greats” as a jazz drummer, emulating those who’ve gone before such as Buddy Rich. He is a student at a prestigious music school in New York, where he initially moves between its dimly lit corridors to and from classes with a minimum of fuss or interaction with his fellow students. In his spare time he practices alone, emphasising his dedication to his craft and determination to master it.
But then Neiman encounters one of the teachers at the school, Fletcher (JK Simmons), a man who literally and metaphorically arrives into his life out of the shadows. When he does everything changes. If Nieman thought he’d been dedicated to his goal up until now, he soon learns that he’s only been skimming the surface, as Fletcher – demonic, lean, and muscular in his uniform of tight black t-shirt and black suit, a vision of tough, single minded asceticism at odds with his genteel and preppy environment – proceeds to climb inside his head and exert the complete and utter domination of his being.
Being great involves more than mere dedication, the movie through Fletcher informs us. It involves total sacrifice, obsession, and the absence of morals. In the process, Neiman metamorphoses from a friendly, quiet, balanced, and shy young man who still enjoys regular trips to the movies with his loving and regular dad (Paul Reiser), into a monster of his Svengali Fletcher’s creation.
Nieman thereafter embarks on an existential struggle to rise from the herd towards the summit of fame and, with it, the status and respect without which life is not worth living in a society that separates humanity between winners and losers. “The two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job’,” Fletcher instructs him, and in a pitiless war against the mediocrity described in those words the teacher’s every waking breath is focused on cultivating the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker. As Fletcher has it, Parker is a jazz legend whose defining moment came when a conductor launched a cymbal at his head during a gig in some backwater jazz club in Reno for this very crime of mediocrity. It was the seminal and defining moment of Parker’s life and career, launching him into a relentless quest for the greatness he would go on to achieve, involving hours and hours of practice to the exclusion of all else. It informs the moment in the movie when Fletcher does likewise to Nieman during a rehearsal, hoping to galvanise his student with the same motivation that propelled Parker to greatness.
By now the inference is clear: talent does not underpin achievement and success in life, practice and all consuming dedication does in a society ruled by the values of machine-men in which everything is reduced to numbers on a graph.
Neiman is a willing student. In fact more than willing he is absolutely committed, trusting Fletcher as a dog trusts its master. He drums and drums and practices and practices, even until his hand bleed. Then he practices some more. Nothing except death will deter him from reaching his goal of emulating Buddy Rich, an objective now indistinguishable from doing whatever it takes to win Fletcher’s approval.
Along the way he proves he has what it takes by sacrificing/ending his relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoit) and pulling away from his father, whom Fletcher continually reminds him is a “loser”, and the balance and normality they both represent.
By the time Nieman crawls from the wreckage of a car crash while attempting to keep his place in the school band, after forgetting his drumsticks and driving like a madman to retrieve them before they go onstage to perform, we are following him through his own personal hell, a young man literally willing to die in the attempt to win Fletcher’s approval.
In the closing scene, when after being publicly humiliated by Fletcher during a performance in revenge for his role in having him kicked out of the school, Nieman has a choice to make. He can either chose to return to the loving, balanced world of his ‘loser’ father, where mediocrity reigns, or man up and prove to himself, the world, and most of all to Fletcher that he has what it takes.
When he breaks away from his father’s sympathetic hug and solace offstage to return to the arena and face Fletcher again, Nieman is Nietzsche’s superman come to life. The magnificent drum solo he performs is not only the culmination of a process that has seen him go from ‘nobody’ to ‘somebody’, it is an expiation of weakness and the assertion of strength. Fletcher, like the audience, is rendered awestruck as Nieman – reaching a frenzied climax – touches that all-elusive summit of greatness that no mere mortal can ever hope to reach.
Now, finally, the Frankenstein’s monster Fletcher created has been let loose upon the world.
The America depicted in and through Whiplash is a country whose mask of innocence and idealism is ripped away to reveal a sordid truth. The nation of the Bill of Rights, Abe Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Jimmy Stewart is horseshit. Instead we come face to face with the real America, a nation and society founded on slavery, violence, injustice, and crippling inequality. It is the America of Dick Cheney, Enron, and Wall Street – corrupt, brutal, ruthless and shallow – a dark, soulless place hurtling towards its own doom, driven there by those machine-men for whom the sine qua non of meaning is the abandonment of humanity in service to the objective of escaping humanity.
Whatever Nieman has won, in the end it is nothing to what he has lost.
John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1