“Whiplash”. Of course it’s a story. Storytellers and filmmakers do their best to make their stories plausible and emotionally convincing. That’s why the concept of “dramatic license” exists. But just as the possession of a driver’s license doesn’t give you permission to drive recklessly, this kind of license has responsibilities, too. Veteran jazz drummer Peter Erskine recently spoke out on the film and condemned it as a gross misrepresentation of jazz musicians and the experience of making music in groups.
“Whiplash” is a remake of every military indoctrination film: it’s “An Officer And A Gentleman” with a bandleader instead of a drill sergeant. The dramatic mainspring of the movie actually has nothing to do with music; the big band is merely the setting for the clash of wills between the recruit/drummer and the drill sergeant/bandleader. The same story has been retold, in fiction and on screen, in offices, restaurant kitchens and other settings.
The story, of course, has even deeper roots: it’s a father/son confrontation. The libraries and film vaults are full to bursting with examples. Mr. Oedipus, please call your mother.
There’s nothing wrong with retelling a good story in a new setting, or even a new telling of the same story in the same setting as before. But unless a writer creates a fantasy out of whole cloth, like Tolkien, he or she bases the tale on some recognizable milieu. The writer is at liberty to represent the real-world setting however he or she wants to, but the further the representation departs from reality, the greater the strain to credulity. That’s why Deus ex Machina endings don’t satisfy anyone – except, again, in fantasy (and opera, where you can get away with anything, as Anna Russell said, as long as you sing it). (Russell’s famous remark comes at the 4:00 mark in this clip.)
This doesn’t matter to everybody. Some people don’t care if a story is realistic if it’s otherwise satisfying. There are some genres where this matters less than others. For instance, I don’t think too many people worry about the precise historical accuracy of a romantic comedy, as long as the characters in, say, a Jane Austen novel aren’t driving Ferraris. But films which purport to represent the real world suffer if they stray too far from reality. Some members of the audience are prepared to forgive anything if it’s “just a story”. But some aren’t. I’m not.
For instance, I thought “The Imitation Game” was a brilliantly made and compelling story. However, I’m put off by the fact that it grossly misrepresents the historical record in many ways: first, by presenting Turing’s breakthrough as a solo effort. Without the critically important work of three Polish cryptographers before the outbreak of the war, he likely never would have made his key discoveries. Second, one of Turing’s colleagues is depicted as a Russian agent and Turing is showing as leaving him in place at the request of the head of MI6. Complete fabrication. Third, Turing is identified as gay but paralytically shy. In fact, while he was discreet, he was anything but restrained. All this is a matter of record from the very biography on which the film is based, “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges. The filmmakers simply used the parts they thought would make a good story, discarded the rest and otherwise invented to suit their purposes. I think the film suffers for it.
How much all this matters is obviously a matter of debate. A film like “Imitation Game” which is held out as a true story probably has less leeway than a fictional retelling of the Oedipal conflict. The makers of “Whiplash” wanted to tell a story chock-full of compelling and truthful emotional power. That they did, but, as Peter Erskine tells us, they did at considerable cost to verisimilitude. That a film may be well-made and entertaining does not excuse it from being criticized for its underlying inaccuracy.