|Dead Poets Society (1989)
Starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, Kurtwood Smith
Director: Peter Weir
Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" is one of those films that people learn life lessons from, but probably shouldn't. This isn't to say that the film doesn't address important issues, but it wouldn't be wise to take it too seriously either, namely because the filmmakers lay on the drama so heavily that it's easy to feel overwhelmed by emotion. Nonetheless, in a genre teeming with titles that carry the same theme of the admired teacher and his legion of devoted students, "Dead Poets Society" is one of the best, specifically for the emotional rollercoaster the film urges its audience to experience.
It also doesn't hurt to have a talented cast of young up-and-comers (like Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard) in their best roles to date, or a comic veteran (Robin Williams) responding to critiques that his first dramatic performance ("Good Morning Vietnam") was merely a fluke. In fact, a discussion of classic 1980's films could hardly go without mentioning Weir's film, especially since it played such a large role in the futures of those involved. Of course, some actors fared far better than others. While the film offered numerous acting opportunities to both Williams and Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard disappeared into B-movie obscurity for nearly a decade before landing a role on the Fox drama "House." And though Weir has only directed four more films since its release, he had the honor in launching the dramatic acting career of another famous comedian (Jim Carrey) along the way.
Taking place sometime in the 1950's at Welton Academy, a renowned all-male boarding school, the film follows a small group of young men and the teacher that changed their lives. At the forefront of the story is Neil (Leonard), a top-of-the-class student whose dreams of pursuing a future in the arts are thwarted when his domineering father (Kurtwood Smith) forces him to concentrate his studies elsewhere. As the school term begins, Neil finds a new friend in his assigned roommate Todd (Hawke), a soft-spoken young man living in the shadow of his older brother, as well as a highly unorthodox English teacher, John Keating (Williams), whose unremitting message of nonconformity serves as a catalyst to the establishment of a secret literary group called � you guessed it � the Dead Poets Society.
The acting in the film is absolutely superb, especially considering that for most of the young actors, this was their first big gig. Williams steals the show, however, as the eccentric Keating, a man so passionate about teaching that he'd do just about anything to get his point across, including having the students read lines of poetry while kicking soccer balls, and relating Shakespeare to Brando. This of course means that despite the serious tone of the film, we still get to see a little bit of the madcap Williams during the height of his comedic career, and what good is a dash of humor if it doesn't help us cope with the more depressing events in the story?
Tom Schulman's heartfelt script takes the main character's relationships with Keating above and beyond the usual student-teacher connection. For many, Keating functions as a secondary father figure to the boys � both intelligent and strong, but without the more overbearing qualities � while still playing the role of the friend. And in the end, this is what makes the film so unique. It's a real shame that our current education system habitually looks down upon teachers such as these, pegging them as scapegoats to a much bigger problem, when all they're really trying to do is broaden the minds of their students. "Dead Poets Society" is a great example of this, but not one that should be taken too seriously over time.
The Special Edition DVD release of the film offers pretty standard bonus material in the special features section. Along with an interesting, but generally boring audio commentary with director Weir, cinematographer John Seale and screenwriter Tom Schulman, the single-disc release also includes a production featurette on sound designer Alan Splet ("Master of Sound") and a 27-minute documentary featuring interviews with the original cast ("Dead Poets: A Look Back"). Rounding out the disc is an informational video by Seale about lighting and shooting a specific scene, as well as a deleted sequence removed from the end of the film by Weir. And while all of this sounds like your run-of-the-mill type bonus features, none of them feel special enough to warrant a reissuing of this classic movie.