Dead Poets Society
Rating -

Drama (US); 1989; Rated PG; 128 Minutes

Robin Williams:
John Keating
Robert Sean Leonard: Neil Perry
Ethan Hawke: Todd Anderson
John Charles: Knox Overstreet
Gale Hansen: Charles Dalton

Produced by Steven Haft, Duncan Henderson, Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas; Directed by Peter Weir; Screenwritten by Tom Schulman

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Written by DAVID KEYES

It's impossible to describe this movie without cringing at the very thought. Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" uses every conventional trick in the book to win an audience's admiration, even though its obvious that the film's situations are shameful, unmoving, manipulative, and (gasp!) recycled. It's a tearjerker where the tears come not from the heart, but from the aching mind; we cry not because of the sad situations, but because of its ludicrous attempts at being sad.

To call the film merely competent is inaccurate. It brainwashes the viewer, definitely, but it doesn't even realize it's doing so. Robin Williams stands on his desk in a writing class at a high-profile prep school, gets a smirk on his face, and announces that his dear students must "seize the day." Then they tear out the introduction to a dictionary-size poetry book. "You must think for yourselves," he proclaims over and over again. If the underlying theme of the whole film is indeed true, which it probably is, then perhaps we need the same kind of mentors for the movies. Wouldn't it be nice to have a ticket taker, or an usher, stand on a seat in the theater and tell us to tear up a manipulative movie like "Dead Poets Society?" Now that would really be seizing the day.

Even through all its manipulation, it might have worked if it didn't stiffen up the actors and retread on the same basic ideas--students think for themselves, students revive society of dead poets, one students takes his life, others grieve, investigation begins, teacher gets fired, and so on. All of it is done with the style of the ivy league education system, and borrows its personalities from other similar movies, like "A Separate Peace," "School Ties," and even "Circle Of Friends." While the look is plausible, and uses a great display of camerawork, the emotions are unconvincing and contrived with absolutely no success.

Take the suicide, for instance. A series of events that lead up to it are played out narrowly and without transcendence; he gets nude, walks down to his father's study (in the dark), lights a candle, opens the window, and then pulls a gun from the desk. All while this is happening, the music keeps a steady shroud of loudness in the chords, and once we hear the gunshot, all goes silent and the camera jumps to his father's room, who is alarmed by the noise. Actually, it looks more like the old man was more annoyed with the music than concerned for his son.

The irritating collection of repetitive dialogue is another downside. It is woven together without the intelligence that god gave a earthworm. Sometimes a character walks onto the screen after some pointless plot twist, and announces something that, not long afterwards, is repeated, undoubtedly because the writer didn't want to overuse his limited mind capacity and think of something that would deteriorate his train of thought. Situations follow the first spoken words, until your mind is distracted, so that when the words are repeated, you don't know that you've already heard them. The most obvious example, I'd say, is when the redhead student (can't think of his name) marches in after being questioned in the suicide investigation at the school, and announces to his classmates that "If you're smart, you'll do exactly as I did." Of course, he is referring to blowing the lid off of their teacher, Mr. Keating. The one particular student who is nicknamed "Nuwanda" (no comment) punches the redhead, and after the enraged student is restrained, the other says the exact same thing as he did just moments before. Poetry is supposed to be more passionate when spoken; this is a movie about that passion, so why is the dialogue so messed up? Shouldn't it help convey some influence to read and appreciate the poetry? If that's not incompetency, I don't know what is.

Much as I despised the dialogue, the score, the actions, and yes, even the incredibly stiff performances, I cannot ignore its high points (make note that they are minor). No doubt the movie looks great and doesn't retread the same mood of other ivy-league school movies; it uses lots of high rising buildings surrounded by picturesque countrysides, and the camera never fails to capture the best shots of these two aspects. Heck, during the mourning for the suicide victim, a blizzard-like condition occurs, implementing the symbolism that the land reflects the emotions of the characters it lives with.

These virtues, few they may seem, allow some relief and consolation for the over-sentimentality and surprisingly flat treatment of poetry and its meanings. The last scene is when the movie is at its worse, using that oh-so-predictable cliché in which, at the last minute, students stand on their desks to show their appreciating for their teacher, just as he begins leaving. During my second screening of the film, I had to turn my head and cough.

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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