Two of the best films of 2014, Whiplash and Foxcatcher (both just recently available on Netflix disks), deal with a familiar American theme—being a winner. This is March Madness time, and sports fans are riveted on games which will determine the NCAA’s best basketball team. This is America where famed baseball manager (of the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, etc.) Leo Durocher once stated: “‘How you play the game’ is for college boys. When you’re playing for money, winning is the only thing that matters. Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I’ll show you an idiot.” I grew up in Cincinnati, where the Red’s Pete Rose (Charlie Hustle) was the kind of do-whatever-it-takes-to-win kind of guy that so many young baseball-playing kids admired. For decades now, chants and extended index fingers claiming “We’re Number One” pop up at all kinds of sporting events from Olympic contests to high-school football games.
In Whiplash a music teacher named Fletcher, a role that won J.K. Simmons an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, sounds sort of like Durocher. He sees his role as being a creator of winners, or as he puts it, “I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them.” These words he speaks to his pupil Andrew (Miles Teller), who seeks to become a great jazz drummer. Fletcher has no tolerance for any “C” or “B” performance. As he also tells Andrew, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” In an interview Simmons said he understood Fletcher’s opposition to the overuse of the phrase: “Like your 3-year-old slides down the slide at the playground and mommy and daddy are down there clapping saying ‘good job.’ It's like, you know, the kid just slid down a slide. I do think the words ‘good job’ are overused and potentially even harmful.” In his quest for top notch performances from his music pupils, Fletcher inflicts mental and physical abuse (e.g., slapping Andrew’s face, throwing a chair) on his students.
And for a long time, Andrew is willing to tolerate such abuse in order to become the great jazz drummer he aspires to be. One on one occasion he endangers his life and that of others by driving recklessly so as not to be late for a performance and thereby risk the ire of Fletcher and the consequences that will ensue.
In Foxhunter, based on a true story, a self-appointed “mentor” to wrestlers, multi-millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), though not as passionately abusive as Fletcher, is even more screwed up—to avoid spoiler alerts, I’ll refrain from providing examples of how unhinged and egomaniacal he is. He persuades former Olympic champion wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to train under his sponsorship to seek another gold medal.
After Mark flies to du Pont’s home near Valley Forge (where George Washington wintered in 1777-1778) du Pont says, “I am a patriot and I want to see this country soar again.” He refers to the soldiers at Valley Forge and says that they were willing to give up everything for freedom. He asks Mark about his goals, and Mark replies that he wants to be a champion. Upon returning home, Mark visits his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), another former gold-medalist winner, and tells him that he agrees with du Pont that our country has lost its values and morals and that kids don’t have any role models any more. (Notwithstanding that this in the 1980s, when President Reagan had promised that the United States would once again “stand tall” and restore its past greatness.) Mark urges Dave to come with him and other wrestlers who will train on du Pont’s estate. When Dave asks Mark, what du Pont gets “out of all this,” Mark replies “America, winning, you winning, we talked about it, me winning.” He adds, “What are you thinking about, Dave? This is it! This is everything that we've . . . ever wanted.” But Dave says, “I can't leave. I'm settled here. Nancy's happy. Xander's doing well at school. . . . I've got a contract. I've got commitments.”
This dialogue between the brother’s captures the central moral question posed in both films: “What price should we pay for winning?” Or because that question borrows too much from our capitalist vocabulary, perhaps we should ask, “What should we sacrifice to win?” Family life, friendship, love, good-sportsmanship—the list could go on and on. And beyond that, we can ask ourselves: “What should we sacrifice for fame?” For money? For success? For numerous other goals we might set for ourselves?
Too seldom do we ask ourselves such questions. In a previous essay, I quoted E. F. Schumacher’s 1977 book, A Guide for the Perplexed: “All through school and university [in Europe and the USA] I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life.” These “maps” he referred to were those furnished by the modern materialistic culture that he grew up in that left “all of the questions that really matter unanswered.” He went on to note that the situation was “even worse” by 1977. He then pointed out how difficult it was for humans to learn how to live properly.
Not only are they utterly helpless when they are born and remain so for a long time; even when fully grown, they do not move and act with the sure-footedness of animals. They hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want but above all of what they want.
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Questions like “What should I do?” . . . are strange questions because they relate to ends, not simply to means. No technical answer will do, such as “Tell me precisely what you want and I shall tell you how to get it.” The whole point is that I do not know what I want. Maybe all I want is to be happy. But the answer “Tell me what you need for happiness, and I shall then be able to advise you what to do”—this answer, again, will not do, because I do not know what I need for happiness. Perhaps someone says: “For happiness you need wisdom”—but what is wisdom? Or: “For happiness you need the truth that makes you free”—but what is the truth that makes us free? Who will tell me where I can find it? Who can guide me to it or at least point out the direction in which I have to proceed?
From primary school through university education, we are prepared primarily to play a role in our consumer culture. Preparation for a good job or career is more important to most college students than gaining insights on how to live a good life. Like Andrew or Mark, most young people set goals for themselves like being a drummer, wrestler, doctor, lawyer, actor, or business executive. And if they become champions, if they excel, we applaud them. What we don’t do is ask them to think out a hierarchy of values and then try to live their lives according to them.
In his most popular book, Small Is Beautiful, which first appeared in 1973, Schumacher wrote that “more education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.” He believed that wisdom should be like the sun, lighting up (enlightening) all aspects of our lives, including our science, technology, economics, politics, and personal lives.
Some of the great religions of the world have emphasized the importance of wisdom. The Bible’s book of Proverbs states that it is “better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared with it.” But almost no one takes such a statement seriously today. As Wordsworth once wrote, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” We are too busy pursuing success, trying to be a winner and not a loser, to reflect on what being a “winner” in life really means.
We might have an inkling, as Dave does in Foxcatcher, that “winning” isn’t everything, that perhaps other things, like being a good husband and father, should come first, but we seldom attempt to construct our own well-thought-out system of values. Even many preachers of religious “truths” do not encourage such mental labor, but instead insist on certain dogmatic assertions like “abortion is always wrong.” Many on the Left suspect any mention of values because the Right have used the word more often, as in “family values.” But as President Obama earlier wrote in The Audacity of Hope, “I think that Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values”; the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.” And I would add, “of our lives.”
Wrestler Mark may speak a half-truth that is still relevant today when he tells his brother that he agrees with du Pont that our country has lost its values and morals and that kids don’t have any role models any more. But the answer is not to make champion wrestlers—or other sports figures or other celebrities—our role models unless they exemplify the highest values—ones like love, compassion, empathy, humility, truth-seeking, and courage. My own heroes, like Carl Sandburg and Dorothy Day, do demonstrate such virtues.
Whiplash and Foxcatcher are first-rate movies. Simmons, Teller, Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo do some excellent acting, and the dramatic conflicts they are engaged in are exciting. But to me, what really sets the films apart from most others is that these two encourage us to struggle with the question of how best to lead one’s life. We are used to confronting this issue in the writings of great writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov, but it was an especially welcome surprise to face it after popping in two Netflix disks.
Walter G. Moss