Dead Poets Society (1989)

by | Jan 6, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Starring Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, and Robert Sean Leonard
Studio:  Touchstone Pictures
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16 x 9
Audio: DD 5.1, English, French
Extras: “Dead Poets, A Look Back” – featuring interviews with Director Peter Weir and cast members; Raw Takes; Master of Sound: Alan Splet; Cinematography Master Class: an intensive and inspirational lighting workshop with Cinematographer John Seale; Audio Commentary with Peter Weir, John Seale, and writer Tom Schulman; Theatrical trailer
Length: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Rating: ****

Charismatic, engaging, and enlightened, John Keating embodies all the qualities of an outstanding teacher.  He challenges his students to look beyond the narrow viewpoints trumpeted by fellow conservative Welton Academy faculty members and encourages the young men, regularly, to seek the most out of their short lives. (Carpe diem, he says.)

Though Mr. Keating is a fictional character in the now rereleased-on-DVD film, his unselfish actions and character make this Peter Weir- directed film worthwhile viewing.

While the other teachers at Welton trudge through their lessons – the Latin teacher blandly slogging his class through Latin verb conjugations – Keating (Williams) experiments boldly.  He pushes the students to follow their passions.  In one lesson, the students recite their own poems, regardless of merit, and Keating’s critiques, bless his heart, are fair and encouraging. Another time, he hands the boys notable quotations to read, interspersing this with classical music and sports.  In addition to such novel methods, Keating (Williams) develops caring yet firm relationships with the young men, instead of putting a wall of distance between himself and the students, as is so often advocated in this profession.

Watching the film is endearing, first for it’s many lighthearted moments but more importantly for the significant attention shown to good teaching.  This is accomplished in a few ways:  First, Keating’s message to the young men to “suck the marrow out of life.” in Thoreau’s words, is genuinely conveyed.  One impressionable student, Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) hears these words of wisdom and as a result recites his own sentimental poem about his beloved “Chris” to the class, amidst jeers.  Later, Knox travels to Chris’ school and courageously reads the very poem to her, declaring his love while disregarding the presence of the young woman’s classmates or her possessive boyfriend.   Go Knox!

Important here is not the romantic connection, but rather how empowered Knox feels by expressing his feelings towards the girl.  When Chris (the charming Alexandra Powers) declares Knox’s persistence to be “infuriating” after she travels to his school in the snow to tell him this – the viewer senses Knox’s impending triumph, his accomplishment in expressing what’s in his heart. And they say staying in school is all about the three Rs. Nonsense!

Another example of the relevance of quality teaching in Dead Poets Society is a scene in Keating’s classroom. Williams extracts imaginative poetry from his introverted student, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) by goading him into describing a picture of Walt Whitman before the class and covering Todd’s eyes in the process. The emotional scene – Hawke’s character stubbornly resisting doing the assignment – is one of the film’s high points and also showcases both actors’ skills.

As a writer and teacher, my personal connection to the film lies in writer Tom Schulman’s creation of John Keating and his attributes as a teacher.  Great teachers continually strive to connect with their students amidst many obstacles, and keep after it because of their love of the craft.  In Dead Poets Society, I watch with glee as William’s character trashes an overly analytical assessment of poetry’s merit in the assigned textbook, and instead advocates the imagination and life-affirming message found in the writing of artists like Walt Whitman.  “That the powerful play goes on, and we might contribute a verse”  Indeed, effective teaching means much more than raising test scores.  I affirm Schulman’s intentions here for his protagonist and the film’s core message.   While Keating is the idealistic teacher, he does strive to do good work by encouraging his students to be independent thinkers, and is ultimately steamrolled by the backward mind set of Welton’s administration. 

Dead Poets Society has staying power because of such an insightful script by Schulman, William’s delightful contribution as the inspired teacher John Keating, and  Peter Weir’s deft touch as a director.  Other compliments to the film are Norman Lloyd’s performance as abrasive school director Mr. Nolan, Ethan Hawke’s debut as the emotional Todd Anderson, and Robert Sean Leonard’s as Neil Perry, the student who discovers his gift for the stage.

Notable extras on this DVD include the audio commentary with Schulman, director Weir and cinematographer John Seale.  Schulman providing insights into his creation of the script, and Weir highlighting his love of the process of film making.  “A look back at Dead Poets” will interest fans of the supporting actors, though the piece seems rather hastily put together, without the reflections of the film’s star, Williams.  Master of Sound and Master Class offer videophiles a behind-the-scenes look of the film.

Both picture quality, accentuated during scenes around the lush campus of the school,  and sound are excellent on the DVD transfer.

— Jim Fasulo

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