Oscar season is well underway and like clockwork, the usual cynics have come out to belittle awards pundits for making something as subjective as art (i.e. cinema) into a competition. To those people, I submit the case of "Whiplash". Though it's set in the art world of an ambitious young drummer, its narrative shares some of the competitive DNA of a sports movie.
"Whiplash" is the story of 19-year old Andrew Neiman, a student at the Shaffer Conservatory, which is the best music shool in the US. One day, he is fortunate enough to be invited to try out for the school's elite competitive jazz band, headed by the mercurial Terence Fletcher. Following an initial audition, he's accepted for a trial period alongside some other candidates and soon establishes a tumultuos relationship with his perfectionist instructor. Both men share the same aspirational outlook, but Andrew soon finds that Fletcher's overbearing teaching methods may soon tip him over his breaking point.
In analyzing the film's merits, one could easily frame a review like a BuzzFeed article, with a title like "10 Things Whiplash gets right about professional athletes". Due to my own personal experience - through involvement in competitive squash - the most impressive aspect was how accurately it portrayed the lifestyle of an athlete. In particular, it highlights something we tend to forget when we glamorize sports stars - the level of insanity required to attain world-class success. Indeed, ask any top athlete about their training routine and you'll likely get exhausted just thinking about it.
Chazelle approaches "Whiplash" with the same "blood, sweat and tears" manifesto that drives a top athlete. The more Fletcher pushes, the more Andrew exerts himself to injurious ends. As the film shows Andrew's repetitive, long rehearsals, it's particularly reflective of an old-school style of sports training, when science/technology hadn't yet evolved to value efficiency over excessive practice. His dogged will to win takes precedence over everything else, including romantic relationships and his general well-being.
The personalities in the film are also analogous to that of many athletes and coaches. Like many successful sportsmen, Andrew is undeniably arrogant. Miles Teller plays this character trait brilliantly, where he's sometimes oblivious to his selfishness, while other times he's defiantly proud of his achievements. JK Simmons is just as impactful in the role of Fletcher, a man who could be described as monstrous under normal circumstances. Yet despite the constant barrage of physical and verbal abuse, he manages to garner sympathy for the devil. There's a method to his madness, as he acknowledges the difference between being great and GREAT (or as internet lingo would call it, GOAT). The riveting intensity these two actors bring in pursuit of this goal cannot be understated, as they often confront each other as rivals rather than a teacher-student relationship.
Much like his characters, Chazelle's directing style is just as perfectionist. The tight framing of his shots capture the pressure cooker atmosphere that Andrew experiences, while the editing has a precise, rhythmic quality which leaves no room for idle scenes. As a former jazz drummer himself, it's a vibrant display of Chazelle's own musicality (a common theme throughout his young filmography). Chazelle's screenwriting still lacks the polish of his directing (some of his dialogue is too obvious), but it's easily his best screenplay to date.
Through the execution of its narrative and characters, "Whiplash" turns out to be one of the surprise "sports movie" triumphs of 2014. Of course, what would a sports movie be without a thrilling climax? "Whiplash" certainly continues this trend, culminating in a scene as exhilarating as any last-second winnning jumpshot or touchdown. It's one of the finest movie endings you'll ever see, all the more impressive from a director who's only just beginning his promising career. Bravo Damien Chazelle. Bravo.
With less than a week to go before the nominations announcement, "Whiplash" is looking quite strong in the Oscar race. J.K. Simmons already seems locked in for a Best Supporting Actor win, while nods for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Picture also seem very likely. Personally, I'm also bullish about its chances in Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. You can also watch out for a potential Best Director nomination as well, a la Benh Zeitlin two years ago. It's going to be interesting to see how far this Sundance film can go in this competitive Oscar year.