If I’m going to succumb to sentimentality, chances are it will involve the inspirational power of literature, the exhilaration of adolescence and the exploration of secret caves. In other words, it’s either The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Dead Poets Society.
There is no denying the strain for uplift that sustains this picture, written by Tom Schulman and directed by Peter Weir. John Keating, the new poetry teacher at prestigious Welton Academy, played by Robin Williams, doesn’t deliver lectures. He offers Walt Whitman-flavored life lessons. His prep-school students, played by the likes of Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke, lap up his words like little puppies, addressing their teacher as “O captain, my captain” and standing on their desks in a display of solidarity when the administration’s hammer inevitably comes down on him. Yet I can’t help but melt underneath this movie: it chisels away the cynic and gets at the sap.
I can’t rationally defend my sentimental attachment to Dead Poets Society, but perhaps I can offer some less subjective arguments in favor of the picture. The welcome performance from Williams, for instance, who fires his ever-ready wit with the precision of a sniper, rather than a machine gunner. (“We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing near you.”) There’s even a moment when Williams sets the stage for someone else, as Keating encourages Hawke’s shy student to spurt out an impromptu poem describing a “sweaty-toothed madman.” There aren’t many moments in his career in which Williams dares to share the spotlight, and this is one of them.
Hawke, meanwhile, takes the scene and rightly claims it. He’s a revelation as a mute kid shocked to find he has a voice. It’s amusing to think that Hawke would go on – especially in the films of Richard Linklater – to play grown boys who often speak as if they’re rehearsing the lines of their next bad poem (and I mean that as a compliment).
Williams fires his ever-ready wit with the precision of a sniper, rather than a machine gunner.
Even better is Leonard, whose Neil Perry is the closest thing there is to a lead in this ensemble drama. Browbeaten by his upwardly mobile father (Kurtwood Smith), Neil is nonetheless inspired by Keating’s “carpe diem!” philosophy, and it’s impressive to watch how Leonard removes and dons his mask of subservience depending on whom he’s addressing. As Neil gains confidence, he not only revives a secret poetry-reading club from Welton’s past (their meetings take place in the aforementioned cave), but also signs up to play Puck in a local Shakespeare production, against his father’s wishes.
The tragic result – an elongated sequence undone by odd camera angles and ripe overacting – is one of the admitted missteps made by Weir. Otherwise, the Australian director (Fearless, Picnic at Hanging Rock) brings his usual ethereal touch, giving Welton a fairy-tale air. The camera swirls while looking up at a staircase as the students cascade down the steps; it twirls as Keating’s students pass a wastebasket around the classroom, throwing away the “Introduction to Poetry” essay he’s encouraged them to rip out of their textbooks. If Dead Poets Society is, in part, a retort to educational stuffiness, Weir’s fluid camera makes that yearning for intellectual freedom tangible.
Still, my main defense of Dead Poets Society comes back to what it means to me – or meant when I saw it at 15 and had begun to take the written word seriously. Early on, at a ceremony marking the beginning of the school year, Welton’s students pass a candle meant to honor “the light of knowledge.” Dead Poets Society did – and does – more than that for me: it’s about knowledge as something liberating and lively. Never mind a candle. The movie depicted knowledge – and literature in particular – as fireworks.