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John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

According to a bit of popular wisdom—originally offered by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success—it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. Some will debate the number of hours, or point out that achieving mastery requires more than mere repetition, but everyone agrees: If you want to become great at anything, you need to commit your time, energy and focus to it. For the truly driven, that commitment can become something more like obsession.

Andrew (Miles Teller), the protagonist of “Whiplash” (2014)—written and directed by Damien Chazelle—is that sort of person. A first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory, an elite music school in New York City, he dreams of becoming a great jazz drummer and is willing to do anything to make that dream come true. He receives the opportunity of a lifetime when he is invited to play in an ensemble led by Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role), a legendary professor. Fletcher is hot-tempered, demanding and both verbally and physically abusive. Instead of being discouraged, Andrew becomes obsessed with proving himself worthy of Fletcher’s respect. He practices until his hands bleed and moves his mattress into a practice room so that his drums are always at hand, putting his health and eventually his life at risk in his all-consuming quest for greatness.

Wanting to excel in the field that you are passionate about isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; Ignatian spirituality tells us that God speaks to us through the deepest desires of our hearts, which is where those passions have their origin. But “Whiplash” is a portrait of what St. Ignatius of Loyola would call “disordered attachment”: an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.

According to Fletcher, his role as a teacher is “to push people beyond what’s expected of them.” He believes that greatness can only be achieved under intense pressure; encouragement and positive reinforcement, in his mind, only serve to make artists soft, comfortable and mediocre. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” he tells Andrew.

Andrew is a gentler, quieter soul, and at first seems like Fletcher’s antithesis. But as the film goes on, we realize that they’re a toxically perfect match: Andrew also believes that greatness is worth any cost. When his concerned father (Paul Reiser) points out that one of Andrew’s heroes, jazzman Charlie Parker, met an early and tragic fate, Andrew fires back: “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.” As he becomes more committed to Fletcher’s band, Andrew coldly cuts off a burgeoning relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist). By this point his focus is monomaniacal and any part of his life not directly related to achieving his goal— including relationships—is a distraction to be discarded. He embodies the dark side of Christ’s observation at the Sermon on the Mount: “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:21).

“Whiplash” invites us to reflect on the tension between our natural desire to excel and our responsibilities as human beings. “However true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it,” Pope John Paul II wrote in “Laborem Exercens,” “in the first place work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work.’” Under Fletcher’s demanding tutelage, Andrew loses sight of his own humanity. He hones himself into another sort of instrument, a callused conduit for his talent. And in the end, he does achieve greatness, in a moment of triumph and catharsis. I was ecstatic watching it. But as the credits rolled, I was left with a queasy uncertainty. Yes, that was great… but was it worth the cost?

“Whiplash” is streaming on Netflix.

More: Film / Music

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