Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Tom Schulman
Starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles
Finding creases in rigid systems is a challenge during normal circumstances, but when a strange semblance of tradition emboldens the lack of flexibility, it takes something special to overcome it. No educational institution enjoys its rigid traditions more than all-male exclusive preparatory schools, as seen in Dead Poets Society. Through its inspirational perspective loving view of the arts, it proves why it would be a wonderful movie to watch at any age.
Welton Academy prides itself on creating the future leaders of the world through its rigorous academics and traditions. In the academic year of 1959, John Keating (Robin Williams) begins as an English teacher after attending the academy in his youth. In his class, he breaks all typical conventions on how to achieve knowledge and to appreciate the art of poetry and literature. A method that inspires his students but does begin to ruffle some feathers with his colleagues.
At some point, most American students will have been shown a clip from Dead Poets Society because its message gets at the foundational elements of learning and how to appreciate the moments youth provides. Whether it be the final scene or them going over the introduction of their textbook, the lessons discussed in the film struck a chord with many folks over the years. At Welton, the focus on academic rigor certainly helps these students in their success later on, but what they experience in the classroom lacks any imagination. The introduction to the textbook scene perfectly outlines this sentiment. Keating asks one of the students to read the opening paragraph where the author tries to find a measured way to judge the quality of a poem. Keating then tells them to rip the page out of the book. A bridge too far perhaps considering how expensive the book actually was, but nonetheless, it demonstrates he wants to open up their minds in a way these students have never considered.
This unbendable rigidity set by the school and the parents forces these students to not express their actual desires in service of getting into an Ivy League school and achieving a noble career. The incessant pressure on these students gets them so wound up that the little release Keating provides presents an opportunity they all take fairly quickly. Pressure-wise the student, who feels it the most is Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), whose father will accept nothing less than for his son to become a doctor. This has been the trajectory probably since he was born, but the pressure put on him increases every year, including his father making him quit a club in order to invest more time into his academics. When he gets influenced by the teaching style of Keating, he finds his love for acting and pursues it, which does not go well with his father. It’s all about fitting into this mold with absolutely no wiggle room, which contributes to why Keating begins to ruffle some feathers.
While the students completely buy into this teaching and enlightenment about life, other professors begin to notice and question the methods. It makes complete sense this would occur with a discipline in the arts such as English, considering the highly academic way the other professors approach the other subjects. However, poetry and literature cannot be squeezed into one box for the students to process, as interpretation and emotion plays into how one interprets a written or spoken piece of work. Hard to imagine anyone would react to a specific trigonometry equation and open it up to interpretation. This subject already catches enough flack, most likely from these faculty members, which only gets continually worse when Keating brings his style of instruction.
The inspirational aspect of this film appears in seeing how the students take the teachings of Keating and make it their own, which includes Carpe Diem or seizing the day. The rigidity and structure of their education have made these students so risk-averse in everything they do, but there’s no fun in approaching life in that manner. It makes those moments where Neil tries out for a play and another student asks out a girl he knows is out of his league so satisfying. This film presents a new way of thinking with sparks of rebellion, which does not mesh well for an institution looking for conformity.
With a career full of inspirational performances, Robin Williams delivers one of his best as Keating. The warmth he carries with him makes him so approachable and it reflects well with this character. Snarky humor and loving care describe Keating in the way he wants to challenge these students to raise their eyes past the textbook and see what life has to offer them.
With so many memorable quotes, Dead Poets Society rightfully gets remembered for the impact it had. It makes complete sense why teachers love showing it to their students, probably wishing they had the freedom to teach their students similarly instead of adhering to the strict curriculums they receive. The film provides beautiful moments of growth and allows these students under such pressure from their own support systems to find a release and actually live their lives.