On the film’s thirtieth anniversary, we look back at Peter Weir’s intricate drama and the inherent tragedy of seizing the day.
Youth is a magnifying glass. It amplifies everything, heightening each feeling at an age when most of us lack the experience or self-control to be able to handle it. Adolescence, in particular, is a fraught time, when the emotions we experience as children become so much stronger and more forceful until it becomes a challenge to tame them, and the new feelings and impulses that come with looming adulthood can be too much to bear.
Society tries to give young men and women ways to cope with this. Adults hope to create guy-wires to help the next generation avoid the worst excesses of those wild and harrowing sensations, and to prevent them from causing any lasting damage. And many seek opportunities for young people to blow off a bit of the steam generated from all that adolescent heat.
Peter Weir’s 1989 film Dead Poets Society sets these two coping mechanisms against one another. It casts order and structure – as exemplified by the stuffy boarding school that provides the film’s setting – as the boogeyman. It positions Welton Academy as a soulless factory, intended to produce nothing other than a series of groupthink-ridden automatons. The men who emerge from its doors are molded to rule the world, while being kept at a distance from its deepest, most invigorating joys, in the name of a sullen preparation for the challenges ahead.
And in the opposite corner rests the earnest hope and desire that these young men may nonetheless live and feel and think freely. The film’s unorthodox English teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), certainly wants to teach his students about the joys of poetry. He waxes rhapsodic on the way verse and prose and meter can forge the very sort of release valve and gateway to a newly-examined life that all young men and women need. But he is just as interested in teaching them to pursue their passions, to free them from the surly bonds that decades of repressive, “right-thinking” tradition have trapped them within before those metes and bounds are cemented in the final years at preparatory school.
It’s easy to want to resist this dichotomy, or at a minimum, see it as quaint thirty years later. The fiery passions of youth make it all too easy to embrace the notion that any and all instruction or guidance exists only to limit us from becoming who we truly are. When you’re a kid, adults who admonish or restrict you seem as though they’re trying to cram you into a limited set of acceptable molds, regardless of whether you fit comfortably in any of them.
But that is as reductive as trying to graph poetry. This infectious energy makes it thrilling when the young men at the center of Dead Poets Society throw off the shackles of their institution and misbehave, all in the name of sucking the marrow from the bones of existence. The other side of the coin is that the same energy risks casting the school, its functionaries, and anyone on the other side of that divide into one-dimensional agents of conformity.
And yet, a few things save Dead Poets Society from such a binary, black and white reading that might otherwise consign the film to being a hollow fantasy of rebellion. Chief among them is Robin Williams. For almost any other performer, Mr. Keating would be an instant cliché. The unconventional instructor who gives his students a new perspective on the world was a hoary trope before this film crystalized it. But my god, Williams is electric here, and it makes all the difference.
No one would call the famously extroverted actor restrained in his performance in Dead Poets Society. His unique Shakespeare readings allow him to bust out the rapid-fire improvisational energy that made him a star. Still, there’s also a knowing quality to Williams’s take throughout, cutting the image of a man who is at once trying to teach these young men to think for themselves and “seize the day,” but also one who truly empathizes and understands the forces working against them, the challenges they face, and the difficulties they may endure in the process.
It’s through his presence that the film reveals more under its hood than the stock “heartless conformists vs. freethinking artists” tropes it dresses in. It’s no coincidence that the film is set at the dawn of the 1960s, a time when Mr. Keating’s ideas, rooted in the classics though they may be, would shake the foundations of the United States and the culture within it. These shifts would improve the lives of countless individuals but would also visit any number of hardships and growing pains along the way.
The film’s cinematography helps convey the way in which these ideas were so radical. Much of the camera’s movement throughout the film is steady and traditional, especially within the halls of Welton. The scenes in the main auditorium, in particular, are framed from the vantage point of a man on high, looking back at a horde of young men sitting and acting in unison.
That changes, however, in the moments where Keating’s teachings begin to take hold. In scenes where the eccentric teacher prompts Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) to dig deep and find that free-spirited fire within him to create a lovely (if implausible) verse from within, or Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) steals his friend’s book and starts a dorm room parade with it, the camera swirls endlessly. With that flourish, the film communicates the dizzying ways in which Keating’s philosophy has unmoored these young men.
The fire of youth is a blessing and a curse. It can lead to limitless creativity, to an embrace of possibility, but also to ruin.
And yet it is in the limits and complications of Keating’s philosophy that the film finds its complexity, particularly in the shadow of Neil’s tragic suicide. The young man’s death at his own hand is a suitably heart-rending event, where the vision of possibility Keating opened Neil’s mind to clashes with the rigid life his father promises him, and reach a bloody, pitiable climax. The pain of that loss reverberates among those who embraced the Dead Poets Society and its view of life. In lesser hands, this would be an opportunity for the film to turn all other adults into nothing more than scapegoating evildoers, there only to root out the source of this and any other whit of dissent or novel thought.
At times, the movie gives into this impulse. And yet it adds nuance to the man who arguably causes Neil’s suicide. Rather than being reduced to just another boogeyman, Dead Poets Society gives Neil’s father (Kurtwood Smith) understandable motivations. At one point, Neil admits that his avenues of rebellion are inherently limited given his family’s comparative lack of wealth. Neil’s father reminds him that he enjoys many opportunities that Mr. Perry never had.
And part of the rigidity of Neil’s father’s point of view stems from a fear that Neil might take the chance for a better life, for greater comfort and acceptance than Mr. Perry himself could ever reasonably expect, and flush it away. There is a subtle class critique in that — one that suggests the halls of power do not just blunt those who walk through them, but the people who struggle to get into them at all.
The film adds dimension to Mr. Keating in the final tally as well. It is telling that after the school’s headmaster seeks to blame Neil’s suicide on his English teacher and run him out of town, rather than credit the sclerotic confines of the institution Neil tried to escape, we never see Mr. Keating fight against the accusation. That would taint him in some way. Instead, we see the boys inspired by him rally and stand up for him and even get expelled for him — a sign that he is still with them, even if he’ll no longer be in their presence. But Keating himself never puts up any resistance, at least none that the audience is privy to.
Instead, all we see is that Mr. Keating mourns the loss of Neil’s life deeply and that he is grateful to the young men in his care for their show of affection and solidarity. There is no hint of resentment or disdain in him, only guilt and gratitude. As rife for parody as the moment’s become, it is still inspiring when those boys stand up on their desks and call out “O Captain, My Captain.” It is a testament to the impact Mr. Keating had on their lives in just a short time. But it belies his quiet acknowledgment that, in the wrong moment, but the only moment, that impact can become too much.
The fire of youth is a blessing and a curse. It can lead to limitless creativity, to an embrace of possibility, but also to ruin. The balance of these things, the measure of them, is as impossible to prescribe or prohibit as it is to try to plot poetry on an XY-axis. Dead Poets Society embraces that fire, in the way that a small spark can start a conflagration that lets young men pursue their passions, seek out love, and find poetry within themselves, but also in the way it can burn too hot and too bright, and take promising young lives with it.