Dead Poets Society, 1989 // Movie Review

Here goes my first review!

This is a movie about a group of boys in an elite prep school who are trying to fulfill their parents’ high expectations when a new English professor teaches them to question the status quo and inspires them to embrace life with passion, poetry, and individuality. The boys form the secret Dead Poets Society, in which they read poetry in a cave by night while also trying to accomplish their own dreams by day, with positive and negative consequences.

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I watched this movie twice several months ago and it instigated so much thoughts and conclusions (thereby falling into a love-hate relationship with the story) that I decided to write up a review/analysis.

Let me know what you think! 🙂

/ Trailer /

/ Tech Specs /

Directed by Peter Weir (Witness, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Way Back)

Script by Tom Schulman

Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke

Genre: American Drama, Period, Coming-of-age

Industry Content Rating: PG

Awards: The BAFTA Award for Best Film, the César Award for Best Foreign Film, and the David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Film. The scriptwriter Tom Schulman received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. (According to Wikipedia.org)

/ Storyline /

Painfully shy Todd Anderson has been sent to the school where his popular older brother was valedictorian. His roommate, Neil Perry, although exceedingly bright and popular, is very much under the thumb of his overbearing father. The two, along with their other friends, meet Professor Keating, their new English teacher, who tells them of the Dead Poets Society, and encourages them to go against the status quo. Each does so in his own way, and is changed for life.

(Quoted from From IMDB.com)

/ Positives /

The setting.

Retro 1959. Boarding school. And bagpipes. (I have a weakness for bagpipes and all things Scottish.)

The characters (especially Neil, Professor Keating, and Todd) and acting.

The camaraderie among the schoolboys is very close and all the more touching when their unity is shocked by Neil’s decision. And in contrast to the boys’ friendship and formation of the Dead Poets Society, they each feel and try to balance the pressure placed upon them by the school and their parents/family – another thing I can closely relate to.

I also love the contrast shown between Neil (the charismatic and bold one) and Todd (the quiet/introvert/rule-follower), yet they still are able to become friends.

Really have to give it up to all the actors to bring these characters to life from the script. It’s impossible to not love Neil (and to not swallow back tears) when I finished.

A fresh perspective of life (and English Lit) via Carpe Diem, which is also one of the major downfalls of this story. Since it’s presented as Truth when reality it’s a Partial Truth. Only living out Carpe Diem/Romanticism without good sense and solid standards to live by leads to down to the mire, from which some literally never come out alive. However, on the positive side, I like Professor Keating’s emphasis of individuality, nonconformity, and the whole “think for yourself and not just out of the textbook commentary” concept.

A poetic paraphrase from Shakespeare.

The literary quotations/references.

Although I’m not well read in terms of Whitman and Thoreau, I appreciate all the literary recitations/quotations in the film. They are all very well delivered by the characters and serves to strengthen the Romanticism theme Professor Keating advocates for his students to live by. And there really are quite a few worthy original quotations from this script.

/ Negatives /

The largest issue I have with this movie is the lack of clarity as to the actual moral of the story, which means this story requires a lot of analysis on the audience’s part.

**(Spoilers until “Conclusion” section)**

While I identify the main theme as pro-Romanticism (Professor Keating teaching his students that we live and die so life should be lived and viewed as extraordinary and worth living, but nothing is really discussed about after death, which is SO important), Neil’s suicide in the end ironically comes across to me as saying “look, this is the ultimate end of this kind of mentality.”

I do realize that another (and rather valid) interpretation may be that the rigid conservatism of Neil’s parents and Welton Academy led Neil to do what he did. I think it’s very likely he would not have shot himself after performing the play if 1) his father realizes that his boy has talent and instead encourage it or maybe set a contingency that he must be able to support himself with a living while pursuing the art, or 2) Neil talks to his father about his despair and expresses how much he feels he needs to act. The fact that Neil refused to openly communicate, perhaps because he “knows” his father will refuse lead me to conclude this story promotes a sort of liberal education agenda along the veins of “parents should let their teens follow their dreams/feelings/whatever they may be without holding them back.” I completely disagree with this type of education of children (since when did YA ever know what’s really good for them?), since teens need a lot of proper guidance and wisdom, though this should be balanced by love and open communication.

Conclusion:

DEAD POETS SOCIETY is a very well-acted movie with some important points all teens/YA/students should think about – including independent thinking, youth rebellion, parental expectations vs. peer pressure vs. personal dreams, and the balance between wisdom and passion. It presents a very realistic portrait of the young adult struggles in the search for meaning and a hopeful future. (Should you pursue your own dreams or the dreams your mentors have laid out for you?) This story’s emotional appeal cannot be denied.

However, the film’s incomplete presentation of truth makes it difficult for me to give this a whole-hearted five star rating. There are some wonderful but unfulfilled opportunities here for the filmmakers to communicate a message about the meaning of life and also how to live passionately (Carpte Diem) and wisely. Perhaps they were attempting to communicate a positive message via negative example, but it’s one of those stories you have to think about because the answer is not given straightforwardly. My take: All heart and no head can likely lead to ultimately Despair and Death, due to lack of wisdom/logic, recklessness, depression/anxiety, hopelessness. All head and no heart can likely lead to a view that life is mundane and ordinary and without passion. I would recommend watching this only in cases where older teens/YA can discuss this story with one’s parents/mentors.

Powerful quote. I think Keating failed to emphasize caution and wisdom to his students… either that or he just never go around to it yet.

Ratings in a Glimpse:

  • Entertainment Value: 4 of 5
  • Aesthetic Quality: 4 of 5
    • Story: 3.75 of 5
    • Characters: 4.5 of 5
    • Acting: 5 of 5
    • Visuals: 4 of 5
  • Content:
    • Sexual: Light – a few sexual references, kissing, picture of nude female briefly shown
    • Language: Light
    • Violence: Light – mostly implied
  • Morality: Depends on audience’s interpretation of film’s message/goal, which is subtle and can be taken multiple ways, 2.5 of 5 (inconsistent, vague, lacking, partial truth)
  • Recommended?
    • For older/mature teens and adults to watch with parents/mentors and discuss important, real life topics

Overall Conclusion: 3.75 of 5, Worth the time but caution strongly advised

/ Discussion Questions /

Due to possible spoilers inherent in the discussion questions, please click Page 2 to see them. I also included some additional thoughts I have related to the questions.

Thanks for reading!

Have any of you seen this film? What do you think of it and my review? I’d love to talk it over with you or hear any other comments/questions you may have. 🙂

P.S. I wish to thank Evelyn from https://theraindrenchedwriter.blog/ for her timely, thoughtful, and thorough feedback on the formatting, content, and wording for this first review. They were much appreciated! 🙂


9 thoughts on “Dead Poets Society, 1989 // Movie Review

  1. Wow, I really enjoyed reading over this (even for a second time! 😉 ). I was struck again by your “love/hate relationship” with this movie and I pretty much agree. I first watched this movie when I was very young and the (no spoilers :)) outcome of one of the young student’s attempts at following the philosophy of his teacher overshadowed the other parts and utterly depressed me and I have, ever since, hated the movie. However, you have made me think back about that and to “the other parts.”

    Perhaps one day I’ll watch it again and find more than I did the first time. Or maybe I’ll be able to handle it better.

    Anyways, I very much enjoyed your review! I found it insightful and thoughtful.

    (Also I had no idea you could have multiple pages on post. 😮 Fascinating, and very clever.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much!! I do think if I watched it when I was in my younger/maybe HS days it would have felt different (less clear vision I guess). The movie encouraged me to start thinking about those themes more, which I appreciate. 🙂

      Let me know when/if you get to rewatch it and tell me if I missed anything (story-wise, analysis-wise, or just perspective-wise)!

      *bows again*

      (Yeah! I came across the Pages feature by accident 😛 inserted a page break and look what I’ve found… :D)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was so excited to see that you had posted your first review! Especially when I saw which movie you had chosen!
    I personally love this movie, so obviously my opinions are going to be biased here. I agree that this movie is well acted, with excellent characters, and that the morality of it is somewhat ambiguous. However, I tend to prefer movies that need this kind of analysis over the ones that hand a message to you. How I interpret it is close to what you said about Neil not being able to openly communicate with his parents, and that was what caused the tragedy. When Keating talked to Neil, he encouraged him to talk to his father about his desire to be an actor. He encouraged communication. But Neil felt like he KNEW the outcome, and he felt trapped. That is the tragedy. Not that he actually WAS trapped, but that he FELT trapped. He didn’t KNOW what would have happened if he had tried to talk to his parents. His perception led him to believe that there was only one way out, and as an audience member, you could conclude that that was what the filmmakers intended (and for all I know, maybe it was) but I just see a kid who couldn’t bring himself to stand up and truly seize the day. It’s complicated of course. And I don’t know if what I am saying actually makes sense. I agree that a lot of the themes in this movie could be taken the wrong way, but overall I enjoy it as a story and I think it is true enough to life that we can draw our own conclusions from it.
    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think where carpe diem breaks down is when it’s in combination with our sinful natures and other baggage we are carrying. I think that what Neil did was draw a conclusion from what his teacher was saying that wasn’t what his teacher intended. What Keating did was bring to light issues that Neil already had. He didn’t create the issues. Neil had them already, they were just buried. We all have to confront our baggage at some point, and it’s not going to be pretty. All Keating did was cause Neil to face his baggage sooner than later. I don’t think it’s right to blame what happened on Keating though. When Neil got to the point where he was confronted with the choice, he made the choice himself. Based on the issues he had, it was a decision he would have to make eventually- the issues wouldn’t have just stayed buried. What he chose to do was a twisted version of what carpe diem means. That being said, teachers have a heavy responsibility. They have a huge impact on their students. That is one thing that is shown in this story. As a teacher, you have to be careful about what your students are taking away from what you teach. But I think the fact that Keating gave Neil advice and strongly encouraged him to talk to his father shows that what Keating was trying to teach and what Neil ultimately concluded were not the same thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for reading my review as well as your thoughtful comments!! I appreciate your input and your emphasis on Neil’s bad decision and perspectives. I completely agree on your point. My main reason for giving this one a negative tone in my review (although in my defense I gave this movie 3.75 out of 5 stars, which is rather good/better than average in my book) is because I think the interpretation of the message of the film depends rather heavily on the audience’s beliefs and foundational worldview. I had hoped the story would be more explicit in emphasizing how carpe diem in and of itself cannot lead to life fulfillment because it’s more of a foundation built on sand instead of rock solid ground. (Although I CAN actually argue that this is what the story showed very clearly via Neil’s end.) As a Christian, I believe Jesus the Christ is the one and only being (He’s also so much more than just a being, but also His Way of living out my life) who can bring mankind the ultimate fulfillment we long for. And we sense a shadow of this fulfillment in Romanticism/Carpe Diem, but it’s not whole and it’s certainly not lasting. Something is missing in this perspective/philosophy in and of itself. I recall Blaise Pascal: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” And also Tolkien: The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories … There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

      So overall, I think Keating in the story failed to emphasize the concept of wisdom enough for his students (and as I said above in the post, perhaps he simply didn’t get to that part of his lesson yet), but yes, Neil’s suicide is ultimately Neil’s failure to choose the right option – keep fighting and living and open communication with his parents, etc. So I think we’re on the same page but perhaps with slightly different emphasis on certain portions/views of the movie. 🙂 What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You make a good point here, and I think that we are very much on the same page with a slightly different take on that page- which I think is an excellent place to be.
        I agree that ultimately only Jesus can satisfy the craving in our lives for meaning. No matter what philosophy you follow, if you take Jesus out of the picture, it will be meaningless. Jesus is what brings meaning to everything. People try to use his philosophies without having him in the picture, but it always breaks down. Something is missing in every philosophy unless it is rooted in the foundation of Christ.
        I guess what I see is that not everyone is ready to receive that truth. With stories, I don’t think it’s always necessary to lay out the gospel in so many words. Stories share different pieces of the truth, and help us to discover a fuller picture of who God is. But to people who aren’t looking for God, talking directly about him will just turn them off. My hope with art is that if we lay out the principles that Jesus laid out for us, eventually people will ask why these things work. Why are these principles true? And I guess I see stories as a starting off point, a place that leads us to questions, rather than a place that shows us the answers. Stories are things that we wrestle with. They are shadows of life that we can look at and decide whether or not we see our own lives reflected in them, and whether or not we like what we see.
        Everyone comes at stories from where they are. So everyone will see a story from their own perspective. And I think that’s okay. We can’t control how other people see the world. That’s a mistake I think some artists make. They try to force a worldview on people, and it backfires no matter what worldview you are pushing. It starts to feel like propaganda rather than art. A good story can show life the way it should be, or life the way it is, and we can learn something from both of those things. Ultimately we just need to keep our brains on, I guess. Truth will resonate with us no matter where it is, and lies will ultimately be discounted. Truth is truth, whether we choose to believe it or not, and I think good art shows that. If a story is really good, it has elements of the Greater Story, whether the author intended to put them in or not. But the Greater Story is what resonates with people. Whether we want to admit it or not, Jesus is the only thing that can fill the hole in our hearts.
        Well, I guess what I mean is that I understand your concern with Dead Poets Society and even agree with it to a point, but I feel like the story shows enough truth about life that it’s ultimately a good story. It opens up good questions, and if people draw the wrong conclusions, that’s not really the movie’s fault.
        It gets complicated of course, because as an writer myself I wonder what my stories communicate to people. What is the balance between being mindful of the influence you have on people and being so obsessed with what other people might think you mean by something that you get paralyzed by the fear of doing or saying something that misleads someone? I have no idea. The whole balance between free will and the power we hold over others is something I wrestle with a lot.
        I hope that some of this makes sense. I enjoy discussing things like this, but I often have trouble articulating my thoughts. This is good practice. 🙂
        (I love all the quotes you used!)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Absolutely. I’m glad to see that we’re both based upon the Same Foundation :). Love all your thoughts here – thanks for taking the time to share them with me here!
          I suppose it’s a bit more subjective of me when I expect a story to communicate more positive truth, but I do realize the power of a story used to communicate a truth via negative (or ambiguous) means. It certainly IS difficult to balance between the responsibility of creating a story AND the power of the message of the story, as well as what the creator of the art intend VS. the implications the audience takes from the art itself. For me, I tend to view all art as a form or level of propaganda… at least to the extent that the artist tend to have a certain viewpoint or message they’re trying to communicate/convince.
          That said, I’m a HUGE ADVOCATE for discussion. And I KNOW that people today tend to NOT discuss things enough. Which is a huge concern of course esp. in dealing with problematic or at least ambiguous stories/themes/messages. (And I have a feeling you think the same, right?) 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I DO like Scotland and bagpipes. I also tend to be biased towards stories set in the 18th century America and Cornwall.

      This is one of those moments when I’m not sure if the 😛 face you included implies a moment of criticism for my taste (or perhaps my expression of it) or if it implies that my attempt at humor and being personal was poorly done.

      😛

      Would you be kind enough to clarify, sir? 🙂

      Like

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