The basic premise of the movie Dead Poets Society is that a teacher named John Keating (Robin Williams) comes into a preporatory school to teach English Poetry. His motto is "Carpe Diem", Latin for "Seize the Day." He uses unorthodox methods to teach his students not to conform, to rely on themselves, to really take something out of life with them. He inspires the students to resurrect something called the Dead Poets Society, where they sneak out to a cave at night and read poetry to each other, among other things. He inspires the students to do things they never would have done before, to step out and take chances. But everything backfires when one boy, who goes against his father's wishes to join a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, commits suicide when his father pulls him out of the school. In the resulting investigation, Keating is kicked out of the school.
The final scene of the movie shows Mr. Nolan, the president of the school, trying to teach the class while Keating collects his personal belongings. One of the students jumps up on his desk in defiance, using a symbol used by Keating earlier in the movie, declaring "O Captain, my Captain" as a sign of respect for Keating. One by one all the members of the Dead Poets Society join him on top of their desks, defying Mr. Nolan's repeated injectures to sit down. It is a powerful scene that leaves you with goosebumps.
As I sat through the movie, I was constantly tempted to be swept away by the amazingly profound, motivating things that Keating was saying. "Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Don't be resigned to that. Break out!" That sounds so great! I want to break out of confines, find a voice of my own, do my own thing my own way! Who needs anyone else telling me what to do? That only stifles me. It's a really motivational thought, isn't it? Or then he says this: "Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, 'That's baaaaad.'" My beliefs are my own. I shouldn't blend into something that someone else thought up. I need to make up my own way to think. It's so exhilirating to think that way, so freeing. I don't need anyone else, it's all about me now.
Robin Williams does a fine job delivering his lines in probably the best acting role I've ever seen him in. That's the main problem. He's so good that you don't grasp the fact that he's spoonfeeding you lies. They are the lies that we all want to believe, that most of the time we really do believe. Who needs God? He's just stifling my inner greatness. Why should the church tell me what to do? I have a right to do whatever I want. I'm a free person. These are the very lies that the snake told Eve in the Garden of Eden: Just think, if you move outside of what God has told you to do, you can be like God. You'll be your own person, live your own life, do your own thing.
Then there's the end of the movie: Neil wants to be an actor, but his father wants him to focus on his studies and avoid the extra-curriculars. Neil defies his father and joins a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as Puck. When his father finds out the day before the show opens, he orders Neil to drop it immediately. Neil defies his father, lying not only to him but also to Keating, who had urged him to talk with his father (about the only biblical thing he said the entire movie), and performs as Puck the following night. His father then finds out, takes him home, and tells him that he will be withdrawn from the school the following day and put into a military school. Neil wants to argue with him, but chickens out at the last second, and they go to bed. In an emotionally powerful sequence Neil stands by the open window with his Puck crown, then walks downstairs, finds a pistol in his father's drawer, and shoots himself with it.
When you watch Neil do this, your first reaction is, "Yes, he's taking his life into his own hands. He's not letting his father boss him around anymore, but he's saving his last vestige of dignity by dying." But then you think about it: shooting himself was actually an act of cowardice. He couldn't bring himself to stand up to his father, chickening out several times when he had the perfect opportunity. So he shot himself instead. The movie tries to portray him as a hero, and does a marvelously good job at it, but if you can sit back and evaluate the circumstances, Neil took the easy road. He didn't want to risk confrontation or his father getting really mad at him, so he killed himself. The hard thing would have been to sit down and talk with his dad about exactly what was going on, having a heart-to-heart. But that's not what the movie tries to make you think.
The miracle of movies is that they can tell you something like this, in the blatant terms I've quoted, and if we're not paying close attention we as Christians can be taken right in. When Keating's teachings lead Neil to shoot himself because he can't get his own way, the students' (and the movie-watchers') first reaction is that it wasn't his fault. Keating was teaching us to take our lives into our own hands, to not let anyone else define us, so when Neil's dad tried to define Neil, Neil had every right to shoot himself. So when the abrasive Mr. Nolan comes into the classroom, embracing the very structure that Keating had tried to throw out, and Todd stands on his desk in a salute to Keating, you're cheering for them, happy that someone is finally sticking it to that stuck-up Nolan. But then you stop to think about it: what am I cheering for? I am cheering for all the lies that Keating told that led to Neil's death. The lies that came straight from the pit of hell. It's really a scary thought.
The cinema is really a scary thing, how it can twist your mind into thinking something completely opposite to everything you know to be true with a few soaring violins and dramatic lines. That's why you really never can turn your brain off, but, as John says, "Test the spirits to see whether they are from God." Just because a movie is well-made doesn't mean it has good morals, and sometimes they can give something completely opposite to what Scripture says is true. Will you be taken in, deceived by the serpent once again, or will you stand for God's truth?
By the way, if anyone is planning on watching this movie, there are some other warnings to be given. There is some language and innuendo, and at one point a boy pulls out a Playboy centerfold. That's about the extent of what went into its rating (PG, but this was before they came out with the PG-13 rating, which it certainly would have deserved).