There is a very rich tradition of books and movies set in schools. One reason is that like another popular setting, submarines, they present a closed environment. But the real reason is that schools and teachers play such a definitive role in our lives, not just during our formative years but always.
This movie is about one of those teachers. It has a lot in common with such classics of the genre as “Dead Poet’s Society,” but this time the story is told from the perspective of the teacher, rather than the students. And the teacher is the kind only the luckiest of us are able to have once or twice in our school careers.
Kevin Kline brings all of his considerable charisma and magnetism to the role of an inspiring and committed teacher of classical history named Mr. Hundert, whose high standards do not come from rigidity or humorlessness. He believes that “a man’s character determines his fate” and that it is his job to mold the character of his students. In an early scene, he gently admonishes a student not to cut across the grass, telling him to “stick to the path,” not just because it was better for the lawn, but because it was better for him. And he begins his class by having a student read aloud the boastful statement of an ancient conqueror whose name has all but disappeared from history. Hundert tells his class that “ambition and conquest without contribution is without consequence,” and he asks them, “What will your contribution be?”
A new student named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) provides Hundert’s greatest challenge. He is insolent. He seems to value nothing but pleasure and shocking people. He knows that he will have the protection of his father, a Senator. But he also knows that he will not have the attention or understanding of his father, and it is missing that which makes him bitter and angry.
Hundert is patient and sympathetic. We get a glimpse of Hundert’s feelings about his own father, a sense of disappointment that may make him more willing to give Bell some latitude. Hundert gently persuades Bell to care about succeeding on the school’s terms. And that means competing for the school’s highest honor – winning the “Mr. Julius Caesar” competition.
Bell does care, perhaps more deeply than Hundert knows. Hundert bends the rules to put Bell in the final competition. But he has to make an important decision that will determine the outcome, taking into account the needs not just of Bell but of the school and the other students in the competition as well. Many years later, he must revisit those choices and reconsider the role he has played in the lives of the young men put under his care.
The first three quarters of the movie works well. Like the students, we cannot help being captivated and inspired by Hunderdt. But when the scene shifts to the present day so that Hunderdt can examine his own contribution and find that he has done both more and less than he thought, the story lurches into melodrama.
Parents should know that this movie has some mature material including very strong language, nudie magazines, and a reference to co-ed skinny dipping. Characters drink and smoke. The issue of character and integrity is a theme of the movie.
Families who see this movie should talk about Senator Bell’s statement that it is his job to mold his son’s character, not the school’s. In what way did he try to mold his son’s character? How was his son like him and how was he different? Is it possible to mold someone else’s character? What role does a school play, and what role do teachers play? Who else influences a person’s character and values? How much do we create for ourselves? What do we learn from Hundert’s reaction to Elizabeth’s news about moving away? What do we learn from his reaction to breaking the headmaster’s window? What do Hundert and Bell learn from their final encounter? What will your contribution be?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy some of the school movie classics like “Dead Poet’s Society,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “The Browning Version” (original version), “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Lean on Me,” “School Ties,” “A Separate Peace,” (all with mature material), “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (the first version, with an Oscar-winning performance by Robert Donat, is better than the musical with Peter O’Toole), and the neglected miniseries gem, “The Lawrenceville Stories” (sharing Edward Hermann as headmaster with “The Emperor’s Club”).