R.I.P. Robin Williams – your big heart, sense of humor and empathy will be missed tremendously. As The Laugh Factory had it: "Now make God laugh!"
And what will your verse be in the poem of life?
"I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden.)
Hands up folks, how many of us discovered Thoreau after having watched this movie? Really discovered I mean, regardless whether you had known he'd existed before. How many believe they know what Thoreau was talking about in that passage about "sucking the marrow out of life," cited in the movie, even if you didn't spend the next 2+ years of your life living in a self-constructed cabin on a pond in the woods? How many bought a copy of Whitman's poems ... whatever collection? (And maybe even read more than Oh Captain! My Captain!?) How many went on to read Emerson? Frost? Or John Keats, on whose personality Robin Williams's John Keating is probably loosely based? To many people, this movie has a powerful appeal like few others and has proven inspirational far above and beyond the effect of an ordinary movie experience. And justifiedly so, despite the fact that charismatic Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), one of the story's main characters, tragically falters in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wake of apparent triumph. Because although Neil's story is one of failure, ultimately this film is a celebration of the triumph of free will, independent thinking and the growth of personality; embodied in its closing scene.
Of course, lofty goals such as these are not easily achieved. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) in particular, the last scene’s triumphant hero, is literally pushed to the edge of reason before he learns to overcome his inhibitions. And Thoreau warned in "Walden:" "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." Anyone who takes this movie's message to heart (and Thoreau's, and Whitman's, and Emerson's, Frost's and Keats's) knows that success too easily won is often no success at all, and most important accomplishments are based on focus, tenacity and hard work as much as anything else. And prudence, too – dashing Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) pays a terrible price for his spur-of-the-moment challenges of authority; although of course you just gotta love him for refusing to sign Keatings' indictment. "Carpe diem" – live life to its fullest, but also know what you are doing. You won't enjoy this movie if you are afraid of letting both your mind and your feelings run free.
Shot on the magnificent location of Delaware's St. Andrews Academy, "Dead Poets' Society" is visually stunning, particularly in its depiction of the amazingly beautiful scenery (where the progression of the seasons mirrors the progression of the movie's story line), and as emotionally engaging as it invites you to reexamine your position in life. Robin Williams delivers another Academy Award-worthy performance (he was nominated but unfortunately didn't win). Of course, Robin Williams will to a certain extent always be Robin Williams ... "Aladdin's" Genie, "Good Morning Vietnam's" Adrian Cronauer and "Good Will Hunting's" Professor McGuire (the 1997 role which would finally earn him his long overdue Oscar) all shimmer through in his portrayal of John Keating; and if you've ever seen him give an interview you know that the man can go from hilarious and irreverent to deeply reflective in a split second even when it's not a movie camera that's rolling. Yet, the black sheep among Welton Academy's teachers assumes as distinct and memorable a personality as any other one of Williams's film characters.
Of its many Academy Award nominations (in addition to Robin Williams's nomination for best leading actor, the movie was also nominated in the best picture, best director [Peter Weir] and best original screenplay categories), "Dead Poets' Society" ultimately only won the Oscar for Tom Schulman's script. But more importantly, it has long since won it's viewers' lasting appreciation, and for a reason. – As the Poet said: "Camerado! This is no book; Who touches this, touches a man" (Walt Whitman, So Long!), this is no movie; who watches this, watches himself!
(Original version of this review posted on ThemisAthena.info. To mark Robin Williams's passing, also cross-posted on Leafmarks.)