(director: Peter Weir; screenwriter: Tom Schulman; cinematographer: John Seale; editors: William Anderson/Lee Smith; music: Maurice Jarre; cast: Robin Williams (John Keating), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson), Norman Lloyd (Mr. Nolan), Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet), Gale Hansen (Charles Dalton), Dylan Kussman (Richard Cameron), Allelon Ruggiero (Steven Meeks), Kurtwood Smith(Mr. Perry), Leon Pownall (McCallister), James Waterston(Gerard Pitts), Alexandra Powers(Chris Noel), Kevin Cooney (Joe Danbury); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Steven Haft/Paul Junger Witt/Tony Thomas; Touchstone Pictures; 1989)

“Falters when it goes for too much heart-tugging manipulation.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Even though more subdued than usual Robin Williams is ill-suited for the role of the rebel poetry teacher, as he can’t help looking smug and presenting himself as so full of it. The coming-of-age educational comedy/drama is set in 1959 (with the pic doing little to tune us in to that time period) and is located in the fictitious picture-perfect country location of the elite staid boys’ Vermont prep school called Welton Academy (filmed at St. Andrews, a private boarding school in Delaware).

Director Peter Weir (“Witness”/”Picnic At Hanging Rock”/”The Last Wave”) has it go rah! rah! rah! with some sincere episodes that pit traditional methods of teaching against unconventional methods, and has something good to say about teachers like Williams who inspire their students. But Tom Schulman’s script, despite winning an Oscar, falters when it goes for too much heart-tugging manipulation, contrivances that too easily fit into the writer’s progressive education agenda and for its predictable overwrought formulaic dramatics to win the day over the valuable life lessons presented.

Newly appointed poetry teacher John Keating (Robin Williams), a graduate of the Academy, undermines tradition as he seeks popularity with his senior class boys and fires them up with his freethinking spirited lessons (tearing up a text book’s useless introductory explanations on poetry and having his students speak from atop the teacher’s desk) that go against the grain of the accepted teaching methods used at the stuffy school that originated in 1859. The energetic Keating passionately reads them Walt Whitman and tells them all to reach within and find the poet inside, rallying his regimented students with the cries of ‘Carpe Diem’–a call for them to ‘seize the day!, because tomorrow we will all be food for worms.This rallying cry brings several of his impressionable students out of their shell and, of course, draws the wrath of the establishment educational figures, who follow the parents’ wishes above all else in the desire to get the students prepared for successful professional careers and to get them admitted into prestigious colleges. The educators have no interest in seeing the students march to the beat of a different drum, as does Keating.

The film’s focus is on the struggles of the students, who include the bottled-up, withdrawn, parental neglected and self-doubting aspiring writer Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke); the outgoing student leader and would-be actor who is frustrated by his overbearing father who wants him to be a doctor with a degree from Harvard, Neil Perry (Sean Robert Leonard); the intellectual who learns to use his heart under Keating’s tutelage, Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero); the wealthy daring trickster, who might be the only one of K’s students who could actually be a poet, Charles Dalton (Gale Hansen); and the hopelessly romantic rich boy pursuing a local public high school cheerleader dating the fearsome football star, Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles).

In the school year book, Keating is mentioned as belonging to the clandestine Dead Poets Society, which comes to the attention of his students. Though faced with disciplinary action if caught, the students go full steam ahead and form the Dead Poets Society. They are given by K. the book of rules for that unofficial school club and hold meetings at the same secret cave in the woods in which he used back in his student days. The group convenes there after hours by opening their meetings by also quoting Thoreau’s “Sucking marrow out of life.” The boys then read the poetry of the greats to each other, or play the saxophone or just goof around. The idea being that poetry will allow them to find their own voice, motivate them for living life to the fullest and help them snag females.

The self-absorbed, inexperienced teacher might have the class all inspired, but he fails to realize the dangers in having his impressionable students act out their impulses without proper guidance. This leads to a tragedy when one student takes his advice too far and the stern headmaster, Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd), unfairly blames Keating for it and to save the school’s precious reputation fires him. In the end, most of Keating’s class backs him and feel sorry that they have to go back to receiving dull lessons.

Though agreeing with the pic’s belief that the most important aims of education are to inspire learning and encourage students to think for themselves, I found Keating’s ways of striking out new ground mostly superficial, immature, problematic, risky and highly manipulative. Though the villain here is not Keating (he just seems like the fool who doesn’t realize he’s taking himself too seriously and is unwisely leaving himself open to anything bad that might happen to his students). The true villains are the caricatured ones, such as the rigid parents who don’t listen to their children and the inflexible conventional educators who don’t listen to their hearts.

I had mixed feelings about such a self-satisfied film that believes, to my satisfaction, wholeheartedly that words and ideas can change the world, but shamelessly bogs down when its showy offbeat methods of teaching do not necessarily seem better than other proven methods. It often rings a false note–except for the inspirational part.