Film Review: “Dead Poets Society,” directed by Peter Weir, 1989
Although “Dead Poets Society” is set in a boys’ prep school in Vermont in 1959, moviegoers relate to it because it puts them squarely on a familiar ground. Most people remember a teacher like John Keating (Robin Williams) who changes his students’ lives. In every school, there’s a passionate soul like Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), a painfully shy kid like Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), and a rebel like Nuwanda (Gale Hansen).
Keating is a new English teacher at the Welton Academy. His mantra is “carpe diem!” Seize the day. He exhorts his students to live boldly. He infects them with his love for poetry and literature. His unconventional teaching methods include ripping off textbook pages and standing on desks. His students call him “O Captain, My Captain,” referring to the title of a Walt Whitman poem.
It’s not a coincidence that Keating’s students are experiencing new things. Neil discovers his love for acting. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) falls in love for the first time. Todd slowly comes out of his shell. Charlie Dalton changes his name to Nuwanda.
Dead Poets Society
The boys revive the Dead Poets Society, which Keating founded when he was a Welton Academy student. They meet secretly in a cave at night to read poems, smoke, and play music. The meetings fuel their dreams, hopes, and audacity.
In a place as conservative and traditional as Welton Academy, the boys’ newfound passions are bound to collide with school regulations, ultimately with tragic results. Keating gets the blame, but his influence on the boys is indelible. In a memorable scene, Keating returns to the classroom to gather his personal belongings after he’s been fired. The boys stand on their desks to pay their respects. They call him “O Captain, My Captain” for the last time.
Homage to Robin Williams
“Dead Poets Society” brings us back to a time in our lives when we were malleable. That is what resonated with me when I first saw the film in 1989. I felt the same way when I watched it again several weeks ago, after the death of Robin Williams on Aug. 11, 2014.
The character of John Keating has stayed with me all these years. Williams’s performance was restrained, his intensity lurking beneath the surface throughout the movie. His comedic side “escaped” once when he burst into a Marlon Brando and John Wayne impersonation. That was vintage Williams, not John Keating.
Universal vs. Stereotypical
When “Dead Poets Society” was released in 1989, some critics panned it for being predictable and stereotypical. I prefer to call it universal. We see a little bit of ourselves in the film’s characters and their experiences. We’re reminded of our youthful idealism when Keating says: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
I highly recommend this movie, especially if you're a Robin Williams fan. For me, watching this film again and writing about it is my way of saying "O Captain, My Captain" to a great American talent.