Directed by Peter Weir
I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time during my sophomore year in high school. My English teacher technically tied it to the curriculum (it’s about a boarding school; we were reading A Separate Peace, which takes place in a boarding school), but I think she really just didn’t want to teach. Either that, or she had a crush on Robert Sean Leonard and wanted an excuse to watch the movie. This theory is not as far-fetched as it sounds; when we were talking about sexual objectification, we watched the volleyball scene from Top Gun.
So what’s the story? A unconventional new teacher inspires a group of teenaged boys at a boarding school in the late 1950s.
The Good: The screenplay for this movie is astounding. There isn’t one main character; Todd, Neil, Charlie Dalton, Knox Overstreet – they all have their struggles, their own voices, their own parts of the movie. John Keating is not so much the main character as he is the eye of the storm, the catalyst for the boys’ growth. All of the boys change, but in their own ways. Charlie finds a constructive way to use his humor and brash personality. Knox learns to stand up for love. Neil finds his passion. Todd finds himself. Keating’s speeches are written perfectly, from the choice of words to the choice of poems used. An entire relationship is shown by the fact that Neil uses the word “father” instead of “dad.” Even after almost twenty years, I hadn’t forgotten the line about being the intellectual equivalent of the 98 pound weakling. The writing is simply brilliant.
I can’t praise the acting enough. Robin Williams gives a magnificent performance as John Keating. The part calls for an actor who can balance slightly zany with inspiring and wise. I can’t think of a better actor for the part. Both Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke had their breakout roles as Neil Perry and Todd Anderson, respectively. (Of course, Ethan Hakwe has changed so much since 1989 that I had to check out his IMDb page to make sure it was the same Ethan Hawke that appears in Gattaca.) Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet), Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton), Dylan Kussman (the traitor Cameron), and James Waterston (Pitts) are each completely believable in their roles. Also, I would like to thank the casting director for not casting 30-year-olds as high school seniors. The young men were all within a year or two of 18. They actually look like high school students. It’s a wonderful thing.
The cinematography adds a fascinating dimension to the film. The scenes where Keating is teaching are shot from different angles so that sometimes the viewer feels like one of boys watching him from a seated position, while other times the viewer feels like Keating, watching the faces of the boys as they learn to think for themselves. The whirling swirling cinematography of the scene where Todd finds a poem in himself allows us to see the Todd’s inner dizziness for ourselves.
The Bad: There isn’t a lot of original music in Dead Poet’s Society, but the themes written for the movie are a beautiful: stirringly inspirational with just a tinge of sadness. However, there is a section where the music is played on a synthesizer. Inspirational music played on a synthesizer does not age well.
The Ugly (Spoiler Alert): I have struggled with depression and despair. I have decided to kill myself more than once; I had plans and suicide notes, but never the guts to do it. I am incredibly grateful to the friend who had the foresight to not leave his handgun at my house when he stored most of his stuff in my closet. I mention all of this because I have learned that it takes incredible bravery to kill yourself. Neil looked ahead and saw a life he didn’t want stretching in front of him, but in my experience, hopelessness and despair (and for such a short time; he hadn’t even talked with his father at a calmer moment) is not reason enough to kill yourself. Maybe Neil had more going on than was shown in the movie, but he had accepted his life up until Keating encouraged his class to be true to themselves. Maybe he could have held out until graduation and then gone and lived his life, but I don’t think that a Neil who looks down the road of his life and believes that he will never have the courage to stand up to his father is a Neil who could have sufficient strength to take his own life. Cinematically, Neil’s suicide is necessary to the movie, but realistically, I don’t think it would have happened.
Oscar Won: Best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Robin Williams); best director.