Director: Robert Mandel
Writer: Dick Wolf and Darryl Ponicsan
Cinematographer: Freddie Francis
Producer: Stanley R. Jaffe and Sherry Lansing
by Jon Cvack
The Private Boys School movie is another one of those weird sub-genres that contain more great movies the more you think. The classic is of course Dead Poets Society (1989), and in close second would be Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants (1987), Harold Becker’s other movie Taps (1981), which takes a direction I never would have thought but went on to inspire Toy Soldiers (1991) and Masterminds (1997), and my friend told me about a female led private school movie All I Wanna Do (1998); which seems to be the Now and Then (1995) version of the male dominant movement.
School Ties is one of those bizarre movies that I imagine flew far under everyone’s radar after Dead Poets Society’s impact. The cast is pretty incredible, at least for how young they were: Brendon Fraser, Chris O'Donnell, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon who in one of his first roles*, plays an anti-semite , who’s by far the best bad guy character he’s ever pulled off; to the point of being surprised Matt Damon could play a complete and absolute pile of shit with no remorseful qualities whatsoever. I don’t think he’s ever gone this far again.
Taking place in the 1950s, Brendan Frasier plays David Greene, a Jewish high school senior from the small rural town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He’s awarded a football scholarship to a prestigious prep school as the first Jewish student to attend. From the get go, we see David with his townie friends, all dressed in white t-shirts. A rival gang arrives and make anti-semitic remarks and David fights one down; getting a nice jab to the face. His dad warns him about his attitude, explaining that it’s his one opportunity to achieve great thing. That or risk remaining in Scranton, if he can't control his rage.
After a brilliant 90s traveling montage, showing the excitement of the unknown, David’s coach McDevitt (Kevin Tighe) picks David up and they drive through the rolling hillside, arriving to campus where a gigantic set piece involving dozens and dozens of students and their families and all of their cars and luggage, moving into and out of the buildings. Though as friendly as McDevitt is for the ride, he then warns David about opening up his religion to other students.
We soon learn that the prep school’s football team has had a losing streak for years and is desperate to recover; not wanting David for his academic skills or character, but because he’s the one quarterback to help them recover. David becomes well aware of the situation while figuring he’s using the school to get into Harvard any way; thus it’s a two-way bargain and no big deal.
His roommate is Chris Reece (Chris O'Donnell) as the friendliest of the group and he’s soon greeted by the most popular guys in the school: Rip Van Kelt (Randall Batinkoff), Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon), Chesty Smith (Ben Affleck), Jack Connors (Cole Hauser), and the theatrical Mack McGivern (Andrew Lowery). They bust each other’s balls and are a bit slow in bringing David into their clique until one night during lights out while singing along to some rock 'n roll they’re interrupted by their new house master and French teacher Mr. Clearly (Željko Ivanek) who demands they go to bed; calling them a bunch of monkeys. David then makes a monkey sound behind his back and the boys laugh and they all become friendly. That is until, while later showering after practice and most of the boys unleash a series anti-semitic rants and jokes.
David discovers that he’s replaced the old quarterback, Charlie Dillion, who’s a bit bitter about the situation, with Damon doing an expert job of acting like all is okay. David crushes it at the first game and the school is thrilled. David later meets and wins over a girl that Charlie Dillion has been pursuing since childhood. There’s an awkward sexual tension between Mack and Mr. Clearly, all the more complex when Mr. Clearly bullies Mack throughout the semester; leaving Mack to soon attempt suicide. I’m not sure what this had to do with anti-semitism and it felt like a studio note telling the writers to include a suicide like from A Separate Peace (1959) and Dead Poets Society.
Things get more hairy when David fails to pass Charlie the game winning touchdown, and with now having his girl, Charlie reveals that David’s a Jew. Immediately all the other boys distance themselves, coughing up more explicit anti-semitic jokes and comments, hoping to get David to explode and kicked out of school.
All the while they’re about to head into finals, and with all the drama, Charlie has forgotten to study, creating a cheat sheet that he brings to class, caught by both David and Van Kelt, then drops it for the teacher to discover and the film becomes a kind of 12 Angry Men (1957) procedural where the teacher demands the students bring forward who cheated or they’ll all fail; which seemed like it could have worked better by using the teacher we’ve been following for the majority of the film; that is, Mr. Clearly rather than a history teacher we’ve never met.
David confronts Charlie and demands he speak up and avoid screwing all of the students; either that, or David will tell them. It was here, given all I’ve seen from Matt Damon that I saw something I’ve never seen; in which he went the extra mile of slime by pretending like he might do the right thing and then in front of all the other students calls out David before David can accuse Charlie. There was then this weird moment, where in about ten seconds, David stands up and hits back with his own rhetoric and the rest of the students immediately demand they leave in order to deliberate who to blame; denying a more dramatic moment of David pleading his case. It wasn’t just anti-semitic, it felt like a rushed moment that had been building.
The students debate throughout the night and Chris is the one most sympathetic to the case. They bring it to an up or down vote and decide David is at fault. Given the significance of what they’re about to do, the glaring hole is why the students wouldn’t just demand the piece of paper and figure out who might have either written it or gotten access to particular notes; the former being the most obvious. Have both write out a cheat sheet in the same way and compare the handwriting.
David is led to the office and he admits to what he did; accepting the consequence. And just as it seems like his expulsion is complete, Van Kelt speaks up, hiding behind a chair. He admits to seeing Charlie and apologizes. The teachers seemingly split between sympathy and relief that they didn’t lose their star quarterback. It’s what makes David’s final jab all the more powerful; telling the headmaster that as they’re using him for football he’s going to use them to get into Harvard.
Moments later, David heads outside and Charlie pulls up, on his way out. In a nasty and truly just disgusting final confrontation, Charlie says it doesn’t matter what David does as he’ll always be a Jew. For what was headed toward such a positive ending was then pulled down; portraying a grim cynicism and yet prescient moment. It’s not that David will always be a Jew. What Charlie admits to is that there will always be hate and the necessity of pushing back.
In today’s world, with the El Paso shooting occurring just a couple weeks back and where we’re now discussing white supremacy domestic terrorism; where young men carried tortures shouting “Jews will not replace us”, it’s a film like this that shows we can never assume hate is over. It just goes into hiding and lies dormant, waiting for the right moment to rise up and show itself. And how it must always be confronted head on and called out for what it is.
*His previous role was an extra in Field of Dreams (1989)
BELOW: Need more evil roles from Damon
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