Review: Dead Poets Society (1989)

Director: Peter Weir
Screenwriter: Tom Schulman
Starring: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Norman Lloyd
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: PG
Release Dates: 6/2/89 (Theatres); 7/1/03 (DVD); 8/9/16 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Oscars: Won–Original Screenplay, Nominated–Picture, Director, Actor (Williams)
Where to Watch: Amazon

It’s easy to see why and how Peter Weir’s 1989 drama, Dead Poets Society, has become so beloved and received multiple Oscar nominations (and won one, for its screenplay). The acting and the script are so solid and believable that none of the events that transpire seem inauthentic or unrealistic. Screenwriter Tom Schulman treated all characters with empathy, even those who we are meant to dislike. Some of the characters do bad things, which they often regret, but such is life. 

Almost every scene takes place at a boys’ boarding school in New England in the 1950s, one that is incredibly strict on all aspects of the boys’ lives there, including recreation, education, and residential activities. These boys’ parents want nothing more than for their children to attend Ivy League colleges and to become doctors, lawyers, etc., but they don’t seem to have their sons’ best interests and happiness at heart. The result of this tug-of-war between pleasing the parents and doing what you want to do isn’t pretty; one particularly tragic event is easy to see coming, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing or shocking. 

Of course, the late, great Robin Williams is the main draw, as he was already well-known. He was nominated as a lead here, although he isn’t technically the lead, as the story is focused on the boys and how Williams’ Professor Keating impacts their lives. 

As Keating, Williams is at his most charming and likable, but there’s also something more lurking beneath, something that we’d also see in his Oscar-winning performance several years later, in Good Will Hunting. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role of Keating, honestly. Williams is assisted by a fine cast of young actors, some of whom are now accomplished and famous, including Robert-Sean Leonard as the conflicted head of the reinstated Dead Poets Society. He is really the true lead of the film, although we do get to know other students, such as a baby-faced Ethan Hawke, who gets to shine in the final scene of the movie (“Oh Captain, my Capain!”) that had me sobbing.

I can’t honestly speak to the film’s authenticity in depicting a strict boys’ boarding school, as I attended a co-ed public school, but there’s something to be said about the significant of a “carpe diem” (aka “seize the day”) motto to inspire.