Dead Poets Society

Directed By: Peter Weir

Starring: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith, Dylan Kussman, and James Waterston

Ethan Hawke has had a great last couple of years.  He starred in Richard Linklater's critical darling Before Midnight.  He also found commercial success in The Purge in 2013.  He even had a supporting role in Linklater's coming-of-age masterpiece Boyhood earlier this year.  With Robin Williams's passing last month, Hawke is perhaps not being recognized for any of these performances right about now.  He may be recognized for a little film he made with Robin Williams some 25 years ago called Dead Poets Society, however.  Interestingly enough, Hawke was the boy a quarter century ago in this remarkable coming-of-age drama.

According to Headmaster Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd), tradition, honor, discipline and excellence are the Four Pillars of Wisdom that define Welton Academy, the elite preparatory school he administers.  For seniors Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd Anderson (Hawke), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), and Gerard Pitts (James Waterston), this isn't exactly the most inspiring notion.  Things change for these boys when their new English instructor John Keating (Robin Williams) arrives at Welton with his outside-the-box instruction methods. Whistling the 1812 Overture as he strolls the school grounds, encouraging his students to refer to him as "Oh Captain!  My Captain!" in reference to the famous Walt Whitman poem, and emphasizing the principle of Carpe Diem, Keating certainly shakes things up at the stuffy prep school.

The boys are instantly enamored with Keating, his teaching methods, and his legacy at Welton.  Inspired by Keating's love of the written word, they learn of a poetry club to which he belonged while at Welton known as the Dead Poets Society and decide to revive the group.  Meeting in a cave off campus at night, they read, write, and recite poetry to one another.  Meanwhile, Neil's contentious relationship with his father Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith) bubbles over and spills into his academic and extracurricular affairs at Welton.  Keating also sees raw potential in Todd and tries to nurture it as much as possible.  All the while, Keating's unusual teaching methods are making him plenty of enemies around the faculty.

Dead Poets Society is a great entry into Ethan Hawke's filmography early in his career and one of Robin Williams's greatest films in his prime.  There's no other film that embodies every English major's love for the art of weaving words into poems quite like Peter Weir's 1950s-set period drama.  It's an undeniably passionate film.  The film is about a brotherhood of romantics, young men who seize the day because of their zest for life.  Smartly directed by Weir, beautifully written by Tom Schulman, and powerfully acted by its cast, Dead Poets Society is an incredibly moving picture that stands as one of the best movies of the late 1980s.

The key to Dead Poets Society is passion.  It's what drives Peter Weir's directorial vision and what motivates screenwriter Tom Schulman to fictionalize his story growing up in Nashville at Montgomery Bell Academy.  For his part in the director's chair, Weir brings some emotional performances out of his mostly young cast.  He augments this passion with beautiful shots of the school and a lovely score.  For his part as screenwriter, Schulman really develops a narrative fueled by the beauty of words and how they can motivate people to live life when strung together poetically.  It's abundantly clear that Schulman’s poetry instructor had a major impact on him.  The fact that he is a writer has to say something.

Passion is also what drives the actors.  At the front and center of the film, we have Mr. Emotion himself as instructor John Keating.  As I've said in the past, Williams has an uncanny ability to bring warmth and passion to any movie in which he is featured.  His poetry readings inspire me, and I'm a guy who hates to read (and bizarrely enough loves to write).  He's able to take the principle of carpe diem and become an embodiment of it.  His co-stars do so to a lesser extent.  For his part as Todd Anderson, Ethan Hawke gives us a quiet yet insightful character.  There's a beautiful fragility to the introvert that Hawke embodies that makes him a standout.  As this soulful character, Hawke demonstrates his acting chops even at a young age.  Lastly, I have to mention Robert Sean Leonard and his performance as Neil Perry.  As this conflicted, tortured young soul, Leonard shines.  He brings a desperate darkness to the character and creates one compelling character.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.  There aren't too many films like Dead Poets Society.  Alongside Lean On Me, it is one of the best education-themed films of its time.  Fueled by an undeniable passion for the written word and the lives it encourages all of us to live, Dead Poets Society is a personal favorite of mine amongst both Williams and Hawke's filmography.  This rather poetic film gets a sober rating.  Despite the rather sad ending, I'd still yawp for this one to this day.