Neil Perry (Leonard), Todd Anderson (Hawke), Knox Overstreet (Charles), Charlie Dalton (Hansen), Richard Cameron (Kussman), Steven Meeks (Ruggiero), and Gerard Pitts (Waterston) are senior students of the Welton Academy, an elite prep school, whose ethos is defined by the headmaster Gale Nolan (Lloyd) as "tradition, honor, discipline and excellence". Both Neil and Todd are under harsh parental pressure to become a doctor and a lawyer respectively, but Todd wants to be a writer, and Neil discovers a passion for acting.
The teaching methods of their new English teacher, John Keating (Williams), are unorthodox by Welton standards, whistling the 1812 Overture and taking them out of the classroom to focus on the idea of carpe diem. He tells the students that they may call him "O Captain! My Captain!," in reference to a Walt Whitman poem, if they feel daring. In another class, Keating has Neil read the introduction to their poetry textbook, prescribing a mathematical formula to rate the quality of poetry which Keating finds ridiculous, and he instructs his pupils to rip the introduction out of their books, to the amazement of one of his colleagues. Later he has the students stand on his desk in order to look at the world in a different way. The boys discover that Keating was a former student at Welton and decide to secretly revive the school literary club, the "Dead Poets Society," to which Keating had belonged, meeting in a cave off the school grounds.
Due to self-consciousness, Todd fails to complete a writing assignment and Keating takes him through an exercise in self-expression, realizing the potential he possesses. Charlie publishes an unauthorized article in the school newspaper, asserting that girls should be admitted to Welton. At the resulting school inquiry, he offers a phone call from God in support, incurring the headmaster's wrath. After being lectured by Headmaster Nolan about his teaching methods, Keating tells the boys to "be wise, not stupid" about protesting against the system.
Knox meets and falls in love with a girl named Chris, using his new-found love of poetry to woo her. He presents one of these poems in class, and is applauded by Keating for writing a heartfelt poem on love. Knox travels to Chris's public school and recites his poem to her, later convincing her to go to a play with him. Neil wants to be an actor but knows his father (Kurtwood Smith) will disapprove. Without his father's knowledge, he auditions for the role of Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. His father finds out and orders Neil to withdraw. Neil asks Keating for advice and is advised to talk to his father and make him understand how he feels, but Neil cannot muster the courage to do so. Instead he goes against his father's wishes. His father shows up at the end of the play, furious. He takes Neil home and tells him that he intends to enroll him in a military school to prepare him for Harvard University and a career in medicine. Unable to cope with the future that awaits him or to make his father understand his feelings, Neil commits suicide.
At the request of Neil's parents, the headmaster launches an investigation. Cameron meets the school governors and board of regents. Later, confronted by Charlie, Cameron admits that he squealed on them and made Keating the scapegoat, and urges the rest of them to let Keating take the fall. Charlie punches Cameron and is later expelled. Todd is called to Nolan's office, where his parents are waiting. Nolan forces Todd to admit to being a member of the Dead Poets Society, and makes him sign a document blaming Keating for abusing his authority, inciting the boys to restart the club, and encouraging Neil to flout his father's wishes. Todd sees the other boys' signatures already on the document, and is threatened by his father to sign it. Keating is subsequently fired.
The boys return to English class, now being taught by Nolan, who has the boys read the introductory essay only to find that they had all ripped it out. Keating enters the room to retrieve a few belongings. Todd reveals that the boys were intimidated into signing the denunciation. Nolan orders Todd to be quiet and demands that Keating leave. As Keating is about to exit, Todd for the first time breaks his reserve, calls out "O Captain! My Captain!" and stands on his desk. Nolan warns Todd to sit down or face expulsion. Much of the class, including Knox, Meeks, and Pitts, climb onto their desks and look to Keating, ignoring Nolan's orders until he gives up. Keating leaves visibly touched.
- Robin Williams as John Keating
- Robert Sean Leonard as Neil Perry
- Ethan Hawke as Todd Anderson
- Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet
- Gale Hansen as Charlie Dalton
- Norman Lloyd as Headmaster Gale Nolan
- Kurtwood Smith as Mr. Perry
- Dylan Kussman as Richard Cameron
- James Waterston as Gerard Pitts
- Allelon Ruggiero as Steven Meeks
- Leon Pownall as McAllister
- Alexandra Powers as Chris Noel
- Kevin Cooney as Joe Danburry
- Welker White as Tina
- Debra Mooney as Mrs. Anderson
The critical reaction to this film has been favorable; it received positive reviews from 86% of critics cited by Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a weighted average score of 79 out of 100 from 14 mainstream critics registered on Metacritic.
The Washington Post reviewer called it "solid, smart entertainment", and praised Robin Williams for giving a "nicely restrained acting performance". Vincent Canby of The New York Times also praised Williams' "exceptionally fine performance", while noting that "Dead Poets Society... is far less about Keating than about a handful of impressionable boys".
Roger Ebert's review was mixed, two out of four stars, criticizing Williams for spoiling a creditable dramatic performance by occasionally veering into his onstage comedian's persona, and additionally describing the movie as an often poorly constructed “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."
Awards and nominations
Dead Poets Society won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman). Peter Weir received a nomination for Best Director and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture of 1989. Robin Williams received his second Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination and it has since been widely recognized as one of the actor/comedian's best roles. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film.
The film's line "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary." was voted as the 95th greatest movie quote by the American Film Institute. Also, the film was voted one of the 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time by the AFI.
- Won: Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman)
- Nominated: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robin Williams)
- Nominated: Director (Peter Weir)
- Nominated: Best Picture (Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, Producers)
- Directors Guild of America
- Nominated: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (Peter Weir)
Golden Globe Awards
- Nominated: Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama (Robin Williams)
- Nominated: Best Director – Motion Picture (Peter Weir)
- Nominated: Best Motion Picture – Drama
- Nominated: Best Screenplay – Motion Picture (Tom Schulman)
Writers Guild of America
- Nominated: Best Screenplay – Original (Tom Schulman)
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