There is a woefully long list of must-see movies that I somehow never have seen. I’ve missed out on way too many cultural touchstones and movie related references due to my gaping deficiency in this department. Disney came to the rescue last week by giving me the opportunity to watch Dead Poets Society, a movie I’ve been meaning to see since its release in 1989. Dead Poets Society got a long awaited Blu-ray this month with a special HD release that includes plenty of extras for the fans.
Dead Poets Society claims a lofty perch atop a crowded genre of coming-of-age dramas about inspirational teachers. Here Robin Williams provides the inspiration by way of John Keating, a newly arrived English teacher at the elite Welton Academy prep school for boys. Keating is an alumnus of the school himself and returns to teach in the fall of 1959. Welton is an Ivy Leaguer factory, pumping out legions of highly successful but likely soulless graduates who will go on to make loads of money without ever really tasting life. The school staunchly supports is methodology and results by trumpeting conformity and tradition above individuality.
When Keating arrives at the school, he unabashedly eschews Welton’s usual rigidity. He has returned with a mission to teach his students not only to succeed but to find their own ways through life and, most importantly, to carpe diem. Keating’s unorthodox methods and free thinking are alien to the boys of Welton, and he quickly gains a following among seven friends. Some familiar faces are among the kids in Keating’s class, including a young Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard. Intrigued by their new curriculum, the boys discover that during his time as a student at Welton Keating was a member of something called the Dead Poets Society. Their interest in the society and in exploring their new possibilities leads them into a school year that will change all their lives forever.
While the inspirational teacher genre is not an unusual one, Dead Poets Society distinguishes itself by never pandering and never grabbing at the easy tearjerker moments. The emotion in the movie is genuine and well earned, and the film never goes for the cheap shots, preferring to rely on its own weight to deliver the impacts. There is plenty of triumph and tragedy to go around, and the sensitive and subtle way in which the story plays out elevates it to the top of the genre. Peter Weir’s direction accounts for much of the movie’s success, but just as worthy of praise is Robin Williams in an unusually restrained and gentle role.
This new release comes with a comprehensive audio commentary from Weir, as well as from the cinematographer and writer. There’s also a half hour long retrospective featurette that has the cast looking back on the film’s production. A brief segment of raw cuts from a deleted scene and featurettes about Alan Splet, the film’s sound designer, and the movie’s cinematography round out a complete package. More than two decades after Dead Poets Society released in theaters, this Blu-ray is a fitting tribute to a solid piece of filmmaking.