To be fair, many critics recognized Dead Poets Society as Grade A hypocritical cheese upon its original release. The hold this film exerts, and the love that certain people have for it, seems to me demented. I know teachers who hold this film up as a paragon of inspiration. The mind reels. The fact that this tripe won the Best Screenplay Oscar is Reason #982 that the Academy Awards are a useless joke.
Robin Williams has only two modes as a performer: super-sincere (his Oscar-winning performance as the depressed psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting) and batshit crazy (everything else.) His turn as English teacher John Keating was his first attempt at super-sincerity, so it may actually seem restrained, but that is only because he is not in it that much. His total screen time amounts to a supporting performance. He was still nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Why? Because Robin Williams is an adult, that is why. The Academy has a habit of reserving Best Actor for big people, and relegating Supporting Actor or Actress to the youngsters (see Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit).
To show in what high esteem the film actually holds the very poetry it pretends to love, teacher Keating waxes rhapsodic about Walt Whitman. . . and misquotes him.
Like many simple-minded screenplays, this one only allows each character to be one thing – one solitary, inflexible thing that never changes. Isn't the definition of drama change? Don't we as an audience long to see characters changed by circumstance or luck or love or other people or adventure or space aliens? Dead Poets Society condemns its characters to finish as they began: the weasel stays the weasel, the dreamer stays the dreamer, the Dean always has a stick up his ass, Mr. Keating is always a paper Messiah, all good, no nuance, and Kurtwood Smith's evil father only lacks a moustache to twirl.
My biggest problem with this film, though, is its ending. Here, the filmmakers want to have things both ways. They need a martyr figure and they need false uplift. Roger Ebert, God love him, pointed this out in his original review of the film. He wrote that this was merely a "collection of pious platitudes [...] The movie pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon."
The kids are railroaded into implicating Keating in a terrific tragedy. One by one, they bend and break and rat him out to the Dean. Keating is fired. If Keating had taught his students anything about life or truth or art or having a spine, they would not have ratted him out. Therefore, Keating is a failure. When it came time for his students to show moral courage, they folded. They ratted him out. What a depressing ending for a supposedly inspirational Hollywood film.
But wait! Keating comes back to the classroom one last time to collect his things. “Ironically”, Dean Stick Up His Ass is now teaching Keating’s Poetry class. One by one, his students stand on their desks and address Keating as “Captain, my Captain!”, a Walt Whitman reference to Abraham Lincoln that has now been trivialized by this awful film. The boys’ collective gesture is useless. Keating is already fired. You boys got him fired. If it salves your consciences to make an idiotic and useless symbolic gesture, be my guest. The next time John Keating gets hungry, he can eat your “Captain, my Captains.”
Better Yet: The next time you feel like watching Dead Students-Who-Didn't-Learn-Anything Society, try this film instead. The problem here is that very few Hollywood films get "high school" right. I say this as a real high-school teacher -- 26 years under the bell and proud of it.
The largely forgotten Teachers (1984, Arthur Hiller) shows us a real American high school in all its glory. I am not talking about the endless preachifying of the Nick Nolte character and his "Don't be afraid to walk the halls naked" crap, but about most of the film’s many subplots. For instance, Royal Dano plays “Ditto,”a burned-out teacher who prepares copious worksheets to occupy his students. They are expected to work independently while he reads the newspaper. One day he dies in the middle of class at his desk, still clutching his newspaper. No one notices. Students continue to file into his class, pick up worksheets, complete them, and hand them in at the bell.
This has actually happened at my school. No names.
Best of all there is a wonderful sequence involving Richard Mulligan as an escaped mental patient who somehow becomes a substitute history teacher. The students love him. He is a complete success, the best teacher in the school. Eventually the authorities catch on to the subterfuge, and as the police haul him out of the building in handcuffs, he pauses long enough to exclaim, "Sir, unhand me! You will treat me with respect! For I... am a teacher!"
I am a teacher too (and an escaped mental patient) and I am tired of being represented on film by the likes of these imposters: these John Keatings and these Mr. Hollands and these Mercedes Taibots (in the recent stinkfest Larry Crowne).