Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, James Waterston, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith, Carla Belver, Leon Pownall, George Martin, Joe Aufiery, Matt Carey
Written by: Tom Schulman
Directed by: Peter Weir
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 129
Date: 06/02/1989

Dead Poets Society (1989)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Barbaric Yawp

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Dead Poets Society won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, which seemed like a clear case of a creampuff beating out four heavyweights. The other nominees were Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, Nora Ephron's When Harry Met Sally..., and Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies & videotape.

All these years later, that still seems like the case, though it's not so easy to dismiss Dead Poets Society. For all its faults, it still has as much power as it ever did. In fact, it currently resides at #741 on the list of the 1000 greatest films of all time -- viewable at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They -- and one of only seven movies from the year 1989.

Additionally, Peter Weir's reputation has only gone up since 1989, having turned in such brilliant efforts as Fearless (1993), The Truman Show (1998), and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).

Looking at the film today, I see the same faults, but its strengths are stronger than ever.

Young Ethan Hawke plays Todd Anderson, the movie's blank slate, the rookie that enters the fray so that we are introduced to things at the same time as he. He meets a bunch of other smart young fellows, perhaps most notably Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), and Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles).

They are all doomed to have the life sucked out of them in school -- until they show up for poetry class, taught by John Keating (Robin Williams). It made sense for Williams to have won this role. Two years earlier he received his first Oscar nomination for a scene-stealing performance as DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam; he even teaches an English language class in that film.

In that film, Williams riffed within his character. But in Dead Poets Society, he gives a measured, contained performance. His passion comes out in controlled bursts, as part of the character. It's hard not to be moved and inspired by him. It's his movie, and he was singled out for a Best Actor nomination.

Yet the screenplay, by Tom Schulman, focuses on the boys. It gives Keating no life outside the classroom, outside from his caring for the boys. "Why do you do this?" one boy asks him, and his simple, final answer is: "I love teaching." So instead we get the shy, withdrawn Anderson, who must figure out how to unleash his inner poet. We get Neil, who decides he wants to be an actor and wins a part in A Midsummer Night's Dream, despite the evil, anti-creativity bile spat by his father (Kurtwood Smith). And we get Overstreet, who falls in love with a girl out of his league and pursues her to within an inch of his life.

If any of these threads were anywhere near as interesting as Keating's passion, that would be one thing, but the movie moves further in the opposite direction, delving into the maudlin with a mood-killing subplot about a suicide.

Even Weir, who specializes in characters that are out of place in their environments, didn't seem to know how to fit in his favorite theme. Keating is out of place, but in essence, he's the only one that actually is in the right place.

Why, then, does the movie endure? I'm sure it's because of Williams and the confident, complete way he believes in his character's credo. The movie's final defeat is turned into a victory because Keating has no life outside the classroom. As soon as he leaves, he's gone, evaporated from existence. All that matters is his vindication. But I would re-watch Williams' scenes again and again until the end of time.

Touchstone has re-released the movie on Blu-Ray for 2012, including some of the extras from the DVD. They include a "look back" featurette with interviews, "raw takes," which are really just deleted scenes, a commentary track, interviews with some of the crew members, and a trailer.

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