Dead Poets Society purports to be about the bravery of following one’s own path. This is a bright, shining lie, one the film is ballsy enough to tell to your face. It makes examples of those who march to the beat of a different drummer by crushing them with the drum kit. Those who stay in line get to cover their asses before making empty gestures of sympathy toward the people they helped destroy. A more conformist, less inspirational piece of cinema would be hard to find.
And yet, this was perceived as “inspirational” by the audiences that made it a hit in 1989; by the Academy, which nominated it for Best Picture; and by the AFI, which lists the film at #52 on its list of the 100 most inspiring movies of all time. That’s higher than A Raisin in the Sun, Sergeant York, Sounder, Shane, and two far better examples of its own inspirational-teacher genre, Fame and Stand and Deliver.
Dead Poets Society takes place in 1959 at Welton Academy, one of those enormous, stuffy prep schools beloved by old Hollywood, British people, and Academy voters. The students are as white as the snow that falls every winter, and just as cold and blasé. Into their standard, almost militaristic existence comes replacement English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams), an alumnus whose claim to fame was creating the titular institute. Keating, like all stereotypical move teachers, is a bit looser than his predecessor: He calls bullshit on the standard way of teaching poetry, takes the kids outside for lessons and, during his first day of class, utters the one of the AFI’s top-100 greatest movie quotes:
“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
And how do these boys carpe their diem? By resurrecting Keating’s Dead Poets Society. There’s no mention of why this is a radical idea, because none exists. Any high school kid will tell you poetry is evil. The Dead Poets Society is a group of kids who sneak out into the woods to quote Thoreau and read poetry that isn’t assigned by their teacher. In other words, they’re doing extra credit work! What school would be against this? Welton Academy, of course, and the school’s objections lead, in most convoluted fashion, to the ouster of our beloved teacher.