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Dusty: This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.
Comment: This is the most high stakes movie review of all time.
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Tom Schulman
Stars: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
Release Date: (United States)
Run time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
In 1959, Todd Anderson begins his junior year of high school at Welton Academy, an all-malepreparatoryboarding school in Vermont. Assigned one of Welton’s most promising students, senior Neil Perry, as his roommate, he meets Neil’s friends: Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and Charlie Dalton.
On the first day of classes, the boys are surprised by the unorthodox teaching methods of new English teacher, John Keating. A Welton alumnus himself, Keating encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary”, a sentiment he summarizes with the Latin expression carpe diem (“seize the day”).
Subsequent lessons include Keating having the students take turns standing on his desk to demonstrate ways to look at life differently, telling them to rip out the introduction of their poetry books which explains a mathematical formula used for rating poetry, and inviting them to make up their own style of walking in a courtyard to encourage their individualism. Keating’s methods attract the attention of strict headmaster, Gale Nolan.
Upon learning that Keating was a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society while at Welton, Neil restarts the club and he and his friends sneak off campus to a cave where they read poetry. As the school year progresses, Keating’s lessons and their involvement with the club encourage them to live their lives on their own terms. Knox pursues Chris Noel, an attractive cheerleader who is dating Chet Danburry, a football player from a local public school whose family is friends with his.
Neil discovers his love of acting and gets the role as Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite the fact that his domineering father wants him to attend Harvard to study medicine. Meanwhile, Keating helps Todd come out of his shell and realize his potential when he takes him through an exercise in self-expression, resulting in his composing a poem spontaneously in front of the class, making everyone applaud for Todd.
Charlie publishes an article in the school newspaper in the club’s name suggesting that girls be admitted to Welton. Nolan paddles Charlie to coerce him into revealing who else is in the Dead Poets Society, but he resists. Nolan also speaks with Keating, warning him that he should discourage his students from questioning authority. Keating admonishes the boys in his manner, warning that one must assess all consequences.
Neil becomes devastated after his father discovers his involvement in the play and demands he quit on the eve of the opening performance. He goes to Keating, who advises him to stand his ground and prove to his father that his love of acting is something he takes seriously. Neil’s father unexpectedly shows up at the performance. He angrily takes Neil home and has him withdrawn from Welton and enrolled in a military academy. Lacking any support from his concerned mother, and unable to explain how he feels to his father, a distraught Neil commits suicide.
Nolan investigates Neil’s death at the request of the Perry family. Cameron blames Neil’s death on Keating to escape punishment for his own participation in the Dead Poets Society, and names the other members. Confronted by Charlie, Cameron urges the rest of them to let Keating take the fall. Charlie punches Cameron and is expelled. Each of the boys is called to Nolan’s office to sign a letter attesting to the truth of Cameron’s allegations, even knowing they are false. When Todd’s turn comes, he is reluctant to sign, but does so after seeing that the others have complied and succumbs to his parents’ pressure.
Keating is fired and Nolan, who taught English at Welton prior to becoming headmaster, takes over teaching the class, with the intent of adhering to traditional Welton rules. Keating interrupts the class to gather his leftover belongings. As he leaves, Todd reveals to Keating that the boys were intimidated into signing the paper that sealed his fate, and he assures Todd that he believes him. Nolan threatens to expel Todd and anyone else who speaks out of line. Despite this, Todd stands up on his desk, with the words “O Captain! My Captain!“, which prompts Nolan to threaten him again. The other members of the Dead Poets Society (except for Cameron), as well as several other students in the class, do the same, to Nolan’s fury and Keating’s pleased surprise. Touched by their support, Keating proudly thanks the boys and departs as Todd looks on.
It has been at least two decades since I most recently watched Dead Poets Society, and I can now conclude that its reality, and my memory of it, were quite far apart. For whatever reason, I remember this as – primarily – an inspirational coming of age film about young men learning to think for themselves and to stand up against authority.
In reality, the two bright lights of individualism are snuffed out, one by suicide, the other by betrayal. The boys’ show of solidarity as the film ends is ultimately pretty meaningless. Mr. Keating is fired and their names and false testimony are on the letter that led to his termination. Neil is dead. Neil’s family – rather than taking any accountability for their own choices that led to their son’s suicide – succeed in casting blame on their son’s English teacher.
Keating does nothing wrong, other than perhaps to be more of a cult-of-personality than an actual instructor. He encouraged Neil to talk to his father. He advised the boys under his watch to go cautiously in their defiance of authority. Now he has been publicly tarred for life as the direct cause of his student’s death. One wonders, as he was leaving the classroom for the last time, if he felt any bitterness about the fact these kids found their courage only after his own life was ruined and theirs saved.
Within that question is the heart of the film – at least for me. Did martyring (so to speak) Keating lead to his ultimate victory? Did the boys finally become men who would stand and fight, and suffer, to do the right thing? Or was the show of support a meaningless gesture, too little and too late, before the group gets down off their desks a few moments later to surrender to the school and its authority?
Williams provides an interesting Keating, though the screenplay leaves his character woefully underdeveloped and two dimensional. All we really know about him, as the film ends, is that he was an unconventional teacher who enjoyed his job. With that to work with, Williams still imbues Keating with hints about who he might be, including entertaining impressions of people like Marlon Brandon and John Wayne. His Keating is bright, quick-witted, and insightful, but as we never see him outside of a classroom setting, that’s about all that we learn. The story centers not on it star, but on the young group of men he is teaching.
The boys in Keating’s class find out that when he was an undergraduate, he founded a group called the Dead Poets Society. They emulate him and reform the organization, conducting secret meetings in a cave off campus, where they… read each other poetry and discuss girls. Nothing especially significant happens in these scenes, other than the forging of bonds of friendship (so you might argue that the most important scenes are in the cave, even if they lack any obvious drama.)
The crux of the film’s actual drama centers around Neil’s fight against his overbearing father’s heavy-handed control of his education choices and Neil’s inability to stand up to his father. We barely see him even attempt to do so. There is something inferentially interesting about a kid who is bright, artistic, charismatic, and communicative leader, who fails spectacularly at all of those things at home, but unfortunately all we get in DPS is inferential. As a result, the drama here is somewhat lacking. The vibrant Neil, rather than finally standing up for himself, acts outside the version of him that we see at school and decides to commit suicide. The suicide scene probably lacked some of the emotional punch that it should have contained because it seemed too preoccupied with the cinematography to share his sense of desperation.
On the subject of cinematography, though, Dead Poets Society is beautiful. I could almost feel the cold autumn air on my face whenever we were given wide shots of the treed campus. Inside the film’s buildings and classrooms, my eyes could communicate the smell of old books and dusty halls to my brain almost as well as my nose.
Did I leave DPS with a better understanding of poetry, or a deeper desire to read it? Not really. The story primarily uses lines of poetry as catchphrases. We see a lot of standing on desks, and shouts to carpe diem, but very little actual instruction. However, perhaps the best moment of the film was Keating coaxing / forcing a poem out of Ethan Hawke’s Todd Anderson, in front of everyone else. Seeing the look of surprise and wonder from Todd’s face, and the joy from Keating after it happens makes the film worth watching. Finding something within yourself, that you did not know was there, is a quintessential educational moment for many people. It was wonderful to see it on screen.
Overall, I was a disappointed with Dead Poets Society. The story was thin, the poetry was lacking, and the drama was underbaked. It was not a bad film, but it did not live up to its potential. On the plus side, the film is beautifully shot, Robin Williams was highly enjoyable as Keating, and it was really fun to see a much younger Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Kurtwood Smith.
If you’ve seen Dead Poets Society, what did you think?