Monday, February 23, 2015

O Captain! My Captain!

Dead Poets Society
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, Kurtwood Smith
Released: June 9, 1989

Oscar nominations:
Best Picture (lost to Driving Miss Daisy)
Best Director - Peter Weir (lost to Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July)
Best Actor - Robin Williams (lost to Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot)
Best Original Screenplay - Tom Schulman (won)

One of the late Robin Williams' greatest and most beloved roles was that of English professor John Keating who teaches at Welton Academy, an all-boys boarding school. This film gave us many quotes such as "O Captain! My Captain" which I saw written as many Facebook status updates as a tribute to Williams the day he died and "Carpe Diem"/"Seize the Day".  

The film takes place in 1959 and it's also Mr. Keating's first year of teaching at Welton. His young students include the shy Todd (Ethan Hawke); his roommate, outspoken Neil (Robert Sean Leonard);  romantic dreamer Knox (Josh Charles); stickler-for-the rules Richard (or "dorky redhead" as I call him!); and rule-breaker Charlie. And there's others I'm sure I'm forgetting. While all the students work together as an ensemble, it's Neil who is the leader and has the most screen time of any of the other young men. His passion is to be an actor, but his strict father (Kurtwood Smith) wants him to be a doctor. I wish I could say that he got his wish and Neil went on to become a successful doctor and I could make a House (because Robert Sean Leonard would go on to play Wilson in House!) joke here, but that doesn't quite happen.

Mr. Keating is unlike any teacher the boys have ever had at Welton Academy. After they have attended their history, science, and math classes with the usual lectures, they become unsure when they're in Mr. Keating's English class and he has told them to rip out the entire introduction of their textbook. The learn about an absurd method about how to rate a poem involving a line graph (please tell me this isn't real!) and Keating tells them it's a load of garbage and to tear out the pages of the introduction. Richard, who had been taking copious notes, is confused when Keating erases the graph off the chalkboard and quickly scribbles through the graph he had just drawn. The boys are all uncertain at first, but then more confidently start tearing out the pages they are instructed to rip out.

Keating tells them about a secret society he once belonged to when he himself was a student at Welton, the Dead Poets Society, where he and other students would meet in secret and read poetry. Neil, the fearless leader, decides to get this tradition rolling again and he and the other students meet in a cave at night to read poetry from a book and recite their own. They also joke around and gossip and philosophize.

Because of Mr. Keating's class and his motto to "seize the days", his young students start feeling more confident. Knox (who would later go on to become lawyer Will Gardner on Good, Welton Academy really is a good school as it produces doctors and lawyers!) gets the courage to woo a girl from a public school who already has a boyfriend (and gets beaten up by him in the process!) Mr. Keating encourages the timid Todd to come out of his shell when he is reluctant to read a poem he has written in front of the class which was assigned to all the students to do. Keating tells him to close his eyes and forget that the other students are in the same room.

Neil, the aspiring actor, tries out for A Midsummer's Night Dream and gets cast in a lead role. In order to be in the play, he must have permission from a parents, so he forges a letter, pretending to be his father. Of course, his dad finds out and is furious and forbids Neil to be in the play. Neil gets advice from Mr. Keating to tell his father how he really feels and he wants to pursue acting instead of a medical career, but Neil never gets the courage to stand up to his father. He still remains in the play and we see his father come in to watch. I thought he might have a change of heart after seeing how happy his son was and how seriously he took acting, but instead he punishes him by telling him he is being shipped off to military school the next morning. Neil fatally shoots himself with his father's gun and we see a heartbreaking scene where his father finds him in his office on the floor behind the desk.

Mr. Keating's ways of teaching is frowned upon by the school board and he is fired. In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, while he has come back to the classroom to pack up his things while a lesson is going on, we see Todd keep glancing at his former teacher and it is obvious he wants to say something, but is still too reserved to do so. As Mr. Keating is walking away, he blurts out it was unfair he was fired. He stands on his desk in an act of defiance and is followed suit by the other students who also agree with him. In an earlier scene, Mr. Keating had everyone stand on his desk to see the world from a different perspective. The music swells, Mr. Keating is getting tears in his eyes and so am I. 

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