Big Screen Streaming: Dead Poets Society

Big Screen Streaming: Dead Poets Society

-Film Review and Tribute by Roger Market

When Robin Williams died on August 11, 2014, “RIP” messages quoting memorable lines from his movies flooded the media. That night, a Walt Whitman quote that I first encountered as a teenager while watching the classic Williams film, Dead Poets Society influenced my own grieving process: “O Captain! My Captain!” When I heard Williams invoke those immortal words in his daring and charismatic style, I realized that he was not only a comedian, but also a versatile performer, capable of expressing a full range of complicated emotions and drawing the same from everyone around him.

High school poetry teacher, John Keating, (played by Williams) is not really the main character in Dead Poets Society, although he is definitely the central adult figure. The film is more of an ensemble piece, centering first on the young men at Welton Academy for Boys and then on Keating himself. The first scene pictures a group of boys, ages ranging from about 8 to 16, preparing for a procession in the school’s Catholic chapel at the start of the term. Keating enters the fray moments later, and from then on, his presence resonates.

On the first day of class, Keating surprises and disorients his poetry students by having them follow him outside the classroom to a trophy case in the hall. The look of alarm on the students’ faces reveals the rigidity of Welton’s code of behavior. Viewers and students alike are engaged. Next, Keating begins class with the famous Whitman quote mentioned above, stating that students may henceforth call him Captain…if they’re brave enough. Keating quickly proves himself to be a charming, confident leader, and a bit of a rebel. Williams digs deep for this scene, drawing from both his comedy skills and his dramatic prowess, illuminating both the makeshift classroom and the screen. His teaching methods are unique and refreshing, challenging the status quo at Welton in every conceivable way and setting the tone for the rest of the film.

The unorthodox excursion on the first day of school is only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the semester, Keating inspires nonconformity, romance, and courage. At various points in the film, he has students tear unworthy pages from their textbooks, stand on top of his desk one by one, recite original poetry in front of the whole class, and, most importantly, go after their dreams—without apology.

Neil and Todd, the central student characters, are most affected by Keating. In fact, Neil (played by Robert Sean Leonard) becomes so inspired by Keating’s philosophy that he decides to go out for the lead in a community play with the goal of one day becoming a professional actor. When his father forbids him from acting, Keating encourages Neil to talk to him again. Gentle, yet insistent, Williams mentors his pupil with patience, providing the tools necessary for his student to succeed. As for the relentlessly shy Todd, played by a young Ethan Hawke, one pivotal scene has him trying to get out of reciting his poem, claiming that he didn’t write one. But Keating won’t let him slip away quietly. In fact, he gets Todd to stand up, to sound a “barbaric ‘YAWP!’” (another Whitman quote), and ultimately to create a poem on the fly. The scene is a wonder to behold and allows both Williams and Hawke to take center stage.



At the beginning of act two, some students consult Keating’s old yearbook in search of information about their teacher. Keating was once a Welton student himself, and they soon discover that he was part of a club called the Dead Poets Society. This group hosted clandestine meetings where they read the works of deceased poets. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, poetry inspired them to “suck out all the marrow of life.” This mission statement is yet another manifestation of the film’s carpe diem theme. With this backstory (and the meaning of the title) finally revealed, the plot surges forward. Following in Keating’s footsteps, the students decide to resurrect the club, with Neil assuming the unofficial leadership position. By now, Keating is well on his way to becoming the most-loved teacher at school. Indeed, he is his student’s captain.

While the second half of the movie is full of still more happy moments, the resurrection of the club is also the start of a slow unraveling. Tensions arise as club members overindulge in Keating’s lessons. The essential message “grab life by the tail” ultimately leads to the administration’s finding out about the secret, “dangerous” group. Head butting and increasingly drastic behavior ensue, leading up to a tragic climax that spells the end for the Dead Poets Society and even affects Keating’s career. The melancholy tone of the resolution sequence is broken only when the bravest students, led by the transformed Todd, take one last honorific stand—literally, atop their desks—to utter that memorable refrain out of respect for Keating: “Oh Captain! My Captain!”

The trailer suggests that Dead Poets Society is largely a feel-good romp throughout, but this is not really the case. Williams’ comic genius shines through vibrantly, presenting a positive and familiar carpe diem message, but the tone of the film is also quite serious, even somber. Indeed, the devastating depiction of suicide at the climax is apropos, considering Williams’ recent death; it may appeal to some viewers who enjoy a good emotional release, but they should be warned that it’s coming. I certainly didn’t have that luxury the first time I watched the movie. I enjoy catharsis, though, so I didn’t let the ending stop me when I needed a Williams movie to watch. As the memorials appeared, one after another, in my Facebook stream on August 11, my own sad thoughts converged on Captain Keating. I thought of how he inspired a classroom full of students to think for themselves, to go after what they want, to let the romance fly. I thought of how brilliantly Williams inhabited this beloved man and how that refrain will live on forever in my heart and mind, just as Williams will: “Oh Captain! My Captain!” It’s not the same without him—but at least it’s something.


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