DEAD POETS SOCIETY
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Tom Schulman
With Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, and Kurtwood Smith.
Elite private schools like Eton in England or Groton here appear in cinema as shimmery objects of nervous nostalgia (Tom Brown’s School Days [1940, remake 1951], A Separate Peace ) or else as insidious institutions that warp their inmates and so deserve destruction. In this subversive vein Jean Vigo’s Zero de conduite (1933) and Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . (1968) depict private schools as indoctrination camps where students–wised up to the tricks of corrupt elders–are driven to revolt. A little learning, contrary to the words of dead poet Alexander Pope, is not a dangerous thing; not if it is dispensed in regulated doses to compliant pupils by paddle-wielding pedagogues. In these fine and private institutions, knowledge is threatening only if privileged students challenge the very authorities who “process” them for successful careers–an unlikely prospect. But it can happen. In their celluloid realms, however, Vigo and Anderson treat school settings not only as crucibles in which to study the courage and character of youth in conflict with imperious pedants but also as symbolic battlefields where wider social issues–inequality, bigotry, militarism, etc–come nakedly into play. Ignore the latter and all you have are tales of the travails of wealthy brats wallowing in standard teenage angst amid their pompous circumstances.
This peculiar “poor little rich pupil” genre still offers plenty of dramatic promise and satiric potential, so when three former private-school students–director Peter Weir, lead actor Robin Williams, screenwriter Tom Schulman–concocted Dead Poets Society, set in 1959 at a posh New England academy, a bit of black humor and a lot of anarchic Williams antics seemed imminent. (Williams, after all, single-handedly–or single-mouthedly–rescued Good Morning, Vietnam  from a truly vapid script.) Imagine the possibilities, apart from the image of Robin Williams mugging wildly in the role of a maniacal Mr. Chips. In the lingering McCarthyism of the late 1950s, America blended maximum conformity with unprecedented affluence, a perfect recipe for sweet, smug complacency–and parallels with the 80s are obviously there if filmmakers want to make the connections. But Dead Poets Society hints at nothing of the sort. Consider that those students on-screen would be pushing 50 today, well ensconced in higher circles of banking, law firms, corporations, and powerful government posts where whopping lies and mismanagement often seem more the rule than the exception. Perhaps Weir intended to illuminate how adolescent school experiences or a private-school ethos aggravated (or alleviated) contemporary woes. But no. That’s not it either. Despite teacher-pupil discord, Dead Poets Society exalts the prep-school milieu, is driven by nostalgia, and preposterously presents schoolboy pique as the stuff of tragedy. It’s a film only a stereotypical preppie could adore: all style, no substantial character. The cinematography (by Weir sidekick John Seale) is almost redemptive; but characters are implausible, Williams is too tightly tethered, and the audience is subjected to a moral that carries all the philosophical force of a light-beer commercial.
In the opening sequence Welton Academy’s formidable director (Norman Lloyd) boasts before assembled pupils and especially avid parents that 57 percent ascend to Ivy League colleges–all else being Siberia. The long cool corridors of Welton echo with the chatter of tired, huddled young heirs yearning to breathe free. Into their stultified lives gallops the new English professor John Keating (Robin Williams), fresh from a successful stint at a British “public school” (actually the equivalent of an American private school).
Outside a Leave It to Beaver rerun, a more docile band of teenagers would be difficult to find. The free-spirited Keating has his work cut out, converting obedient drudges into the nervy brutes that nature intended them to be. But the core cast of seven students behave as if they were auditioning for posts in the Bush administration; they’re willing to do anything to get ahead. As an early confrontation with parents illustrates, Welton students have made separate but similar pacts, exchanging obedience for the comfort and security of a fast-track career path. They are a familiar mix of personalities and problems. Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) is the sensitive soul aching for a crack at an acting career, except that Dad (Kurtwood Smith, mustering an eerily icy hit-man demeanor) insists he damned well will go to med school, and love it, too. Todd (Ethan Hawke) is the even more exquisitely sensitive introvert whom Keating will enliven. Knox (Josh Charles), a presentable sort, needs just a touch of audacity to woo a 16-year-old femme fatale. Also present and accounted for are a nerdy genius (Allelon Ruggiero), a refreshingly wise-ass rebel (Gale Hansen), and a cold-blooded pragmatist (Dylan Kussman) destined, I’d reckon, for a cushy post on the Committee to Re-elect President Nixon.
Keating commences shaking up this mild bunch, scaling the heady heights of his desk, performing an impromptu bit of poetic faith healing, reciting Shakespeare via John Wayne–all this and more at what is for Robin Williams a relatively phlegmatic pace. His transcendent message, his thrilling command to these oppressed scions? Carpe diem, buckaroos, seize the day! (Shades of Williams’s role in the PBS broadcast a few years ago of Saul Bellow’s novel of that title.) Do it. Go for the gusto. You were made to go out and get her. Be all that you can be. You might get better advice from a fortune cookie.
For all his rebellious posturing the teacher is simply telling the kids what they crave to hear: passion above all. Yeah, fine. Who’s knocking passion? But how about an honorable mention for compassion, or a little humility? In the name of passion and self-discovery the students revive the Dead Poets Society–dormant since Keating’s own Welton schoolboy days–and meet in a drafty cave, where they form a vortex of mutual juvenile self-absorption beyond the reach of the wicked headmaster. There they unfurl Playboy magazine centerfolds, toot a little jazz saxophone, recite verse ranging from Shelley to rap–ahead of their time, these fellows–and debate whether they dare disturb the universe outside. The first (and only) demand they make to Welton authorities is that the all-boys academy admit girls. Watching these lads pursue their self-interest isn’t all that suspenseful. A key drawback is that the characters on-screen, and the filmmakers too, are so marooned in the prosperous climes of Welton that they misjudge the significance of their tremendously trivial antics. One boy fatally loses perspective, committing suicide in a fit of petulance. The tale ultimately turns on the scapegoating of the iconoclastic teacher, and the response of the Dead Poets Society survivors.
Incidentally, we never are privy to Keatings’s personal life, nor do we quite grasp why such a talented individual is devoted to pedagogy. In any event–to use the argot of the era–these devout young “squares” fail in this precious milieu to unify into anything more than a circle of conceit.