RETRO REVIEW: “Dead Poets Society” (1989)


There was a time when the inspirational new teacher trope found its way into a lot of movies. “Stand and Deliver”, “Lean on Me”, “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, “Dangerous Minds” are all films that came out within the same window. Add to that group Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society”, an Oscar-winning drama about self-discovery, free-thinking, and the unfortunate costs that sometimes comes with them.

The story comes from screenwriter Tom Schulman and earned him the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It’s set in 1959 Vermont at the fictional Welton Academy, a prestigious private prep school for boys. The film stars a restrained Robin Williams (who nabbed an Oscar nomination) and a cast of relative newcomers, most notably a young, baby-faced Ethan Hawke.

Williams gets top billing playing John Keating, the academy’s charismatic new literature teacher and a Welton graduate himself. His eccentric nature and unorthodox teaching grabs the attention of his students (and a few faculty heads). Rapid quoting Whitman, Tennyson, and Thoreau. Holding class in the hallways, the courtyard, or on a soccer field. Urging the boys to focus on feeling rather than form. Keating’s methods invigorate his students while rubbing some of his colleagues the wrong way.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY, Robin Williams, 1989

Photo Courtesy Buena Vista Pictures

While Williams is the bigger name, the movie is really about the boys and their thirst for individuality. Mr. Keating may trumpet the mantra “carpe diem: seize the day”, but it’s the boys search for its meaning that drives the story forward. For Todd (Hawke) it’s in finding his voice. For Knox (Josh Charles) it’s in winning the heart of a local girl. For Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) it’s in following his own dream and not the one defined for him by his rigid authoritarian father (Kurtwood Smith).

The boys learn that Mr. Keating was a bit of a free spirit during his student days and was a member of the Dead Poets Society. It was a clandestine club that met in a cave just off campus where members would take turns reading excepts from classic poets. Using Thoreau, Mr. Keating described it as a bunch of romantics “Sucking the marrow out of life“. Naturally the boys put together their own secret version of the Dead Poets Society. But poetry soon takes a back seat to newfound self-expression and their budding desires to take life by the horns.

The acting is delightful throughout, especially from Williams who puts aside his frantic, quip-a-second routine for a much more contained performance. He quietly embodies a character full of empathy and compassion. The one shortcoming is that he is essentially a blank page outside of the classroom. Schulman’s script doesn’t seem as interested in him as Weir’s camera so we’re left with only tidbits of information about who he really is. But it reenforces that the story is truly about his students.


Photo Courtesy Buena Vista Pictures

Hawke is fun to rewatch especially in 2020 now that he is an established star. In “Dead Poets” you can see an up-and-comer with some real chops. But I was just as impressed with the other young actors who mostly avoid the pitfalls that often accompany these roles. Leonard is especially strong, playing the character with the most complexity and layers. Neil is the definition of the dutiful son, inescapably tethered to his father’s strict vision for the future. Leonard really sells us a young man repressed and pained despite his happy facade.

Weir and his cinematographer John Seale use their camera to portray a stuffy, buttoned up New England campus but a beautiful one nonetheless. There is an ever-present taste of autumn as golden leaves tumble across the sidewalks and the gorgeous stone masonwork feels plucked out of time. But there are also those Weir flourishes like the stunning wide shots of the boys, barely more than silhouettes, heading off to their secret cave. Or when his camera spirals up a staircase as noisy students cascade down.

There’s a good chance “Dead Poets Society” won’t satisfy those looking for a deeper dive into poetry or a more in-depth representation of classroom education. But that’s not what Weir and company are going for. This is about seven boys coming of age just as the world is about to get a lot more complicated. Yes things start to get a little predictable and I do wish Mr. Keating had more outside-the-classroom depth. But for the most part “Dead Poets” hits its target and it still leaves an impression some twenty-five years since I last saw it.



40 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Dead Poets Society” (1989)

    • You know, now that you mention it I do remember Ebert being pretty vocal about hit frustrations. It’s interesting to read his thoughts especially today.

  1. I love how they developed a Shakespearean backdrop of civilization/ and all it requires in the school building and wilderness/freedom and being able to be yourself in the danger and anarchy outside of the building. Really brilliant and thoughtful.

    • Nice thoughts. It had been so long since I last saw this and I was caught off guard by how thoughtful and well conceived it is. It definitely has more going on under its surface than it is often given credit for.

  2. I let my highschool students watched this, and they also felt what I’ve felt everytime I repeatedly watch this. 😊

    • That’s good to hear. And it’s interesting – we get a lot of these coming-of-age movies that simply don’t resonate. This one continues to be held in high regard.

    • I was a high school student who had the fortune of having a teacher who put this on for us. I fell in love with it immediately, yes for Robin Williams but also for Robert Sean Leonard. I had a teacher who pushed us to think creatively and really for ourselves rather than lean on the rigidity of county-mandated curricula. (Not that s/he wasn’t doing their job/being irresponsible, but I will always remember that teacher for shaking things up, doing things differently.)

      • That’s really cool. I can see how this would resonate with you. I didn’t really have a teacher that I can remember being that much outside the box. I would have adored being in Mr. Keating’s class.

    • It’s funny, I saw it in the theater too and really liked it. But I’ve only seen it (maybe) one other time since this revisit. It was great catching up to it.

  3. Great review! I rewatch this movie from time to time but I haven’t decided yet if it’s movie I really like or just a movie I’m curious about. You made some really great points, though: the young actors all work really well and Weir behind the camera is great!

    • Rewatching it I was really struck by how much it was about the boys. Their story is the film’s biggest focus. I had forgotten that in the years since last seeing it.

    • Thanks for reading. I enjoyed my revisit and I’ve enjoyed the comments from the numerous fans of it. To be honest I had forgotten how beloved it was.

  4. This is a film that I’ll still re-watch whenever it’s on TV. I just love it as I remember watching it at high school and really enjoying it. It’s such an incredible film and it kind of makes me sad now since Robin Williams isn’t here anymore as he’s someone I still miss.

    • YES! I’ve watched a couple of Williams’ movies over the last few days was reminded of just how good he was. Tremendous and heartbreaking loss.

  5. It’s really interesting how this movie has evolved for me over time. Today I see how people can take issue with the pretentiousness of Mr. Keating’s approach. There’s a certain privileged status to the whole affair, it being shot in some kind of Ivy League prep school where everyone is rich, talented, advantaged in some way. Of course we learn more about the boys as the story progresses — I’m thinking mostly of Robert Sean Leonard who still stands out as my favorite character, despite how much I love Williams in this — but I *get* why there is criticism towards the “schmalzy'” qualities. That said, having an increased awareness of those viewpoints doesn’t make me love this movie any less. It’s an all-timer for me. And it’s been years since I’ve seen it, I need to rectify that!

    • It’s funny, I tend to push back on the schmaltzy accusations. I get what they’re saying but the truth is the emotions, the stress, the family pressure, it’s all real-world stuff. As are the consequences the movie shows us. Maybe it all feels a bit scripted, but I would say the pressures it explores can resonate with a lot of people.

      • I totally agree. It’s a very well made movie, and the emotional component is very earnestly expressed and moving. Plus, it’s difficult to overstate how good Robin Williams is in this one.

  6. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t seen Dead Poets! Just reading the comments shows that this is a film that has a deep emotional impact on people. It’s a sign of a great script when it can produce emotion through dialogue and character over anything else! Odds on me watching this within the week…

    • That’s great. Let me know what you think of it. It definitely has its following. To be perfectly honest I had forgotten just how passionate people were. It was fun revisiting it.

  7. I’ve not seen this yet, even though it’s been on my watch list for ages, I’ve heard so many good things about it.
    Reading this, it reminds me a little of ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ (which I love). Have you seen it? I’d be interested to see how you think they compare.

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