By Marc S. Sanders
Robert Mandel’s adaptation of a story from Dick Wolf might be regarded nearly 30 years later as the film with the next generation of up-and-coming brat packers, but School Ties remains an underrated and topically important film nonetheless. Just as it is still a problem of today, victimized by ignorance and unfounded bigotry, anti-Semitism was an issue that spread like a social disease within the confines of a prep school New England community in the 1950’s.
Brendan Fraser is David Greene, a high school senior awarded a scholarship at the school in order to usher in a championship football season as their quarterback. David is well aware of his ultimate purpose for his scholarship and he brushes that aside as just one year of attendance will ultimately lead to acceptance at an Ivy League school. He’s just like any other handsome boy attending the school, and he’s immediately accepted among the masses. He’s hilarious at mischievous horseplay with the French teacher. The beautiful girl (Amy Locane) at the nearby girls’ school is taken with him. His football skills are applauded. It may be a little surprising that he stems from the blue-collar town of Scranton, Pennsylvania and he buses the tables at dinner time, but David is an all-around okay guy who can knock over a linebacker while passing exceptional touchdown passes. Amid this environment of different Christian denominations and WASP culture, however, David knows that he will stand apart if he reveals he is Jewish. Therefore, he tolerates the casual jokes and accepts that it’s best to hide his Star of David necklace.
The most important relationship occurs between David and his back up quarterback, Charlie (Matt Damon, before he became a superstar, but already looks like he’ll be a superstar). Charlie begrudgingly accepts that David got to cut in line to be the star player. As David becomes more of the celebrity on campus, Charlie is proud to be by his side. Yet, Charlie has his own pressures to live up to as the fifth in line of his esteemed family who must carry on the legacy at the school followed by attending Harvard the following year.
The roadmap of School Ties is easy to navigate. You know when each note of the script is about to be played. There will be a swastika that will shockingly appear. Fist fights will happen. The blue blood parents and faculty will interfere preaching their own “codes of honor” and the school’s storied 193 year history. Yet, the film works very, very effectively. The dialogue isn’t hokey and nothing feels like what could have been an after school special.
No debate among the viewers. Anti-Semitism is evil and thoughtless without merit or justification. Questions appear where is it right to ask if David should have hidden his Jewishness or was he even lying about being Jewish, when in fact he just wasn’t even asked. Is it right that David confronts his problems with his fists first? Yet, Wolf’s script, apparently based on personal experience, delves further into the mounting pressures of these prep school kids who are primed from birth to be the latest model churned out from the respective family lineage for greatness in academics and athleticism. Much of the material is devoted to the horror of actually not acing a class, and I appreciate that it’s not diminished to a standard line of “my parents are going to kill me.” Raw emotion and stress are legitimized among these students.
The third act comes with no foreshadowing as a cheating scandal is suddenly introduced. Collectively the boys must debate who is the guilty party and why are they the guilty party. Is it because one is Jewish, or is it because one actually cheated? Good dialogue, good debate, but this also may be where the standard stuff spills over a little too much. As such, the ending hinges on the third act, when it should have embraced more of the film as a whole.
The cast is made up of, at the time, soon to be superstars like Fraser, Damon, Chris O’Donnell, and Ben Affleck. School Ties should be regarded as a winning audition for these guys’ careers that were only just on the horizon. Their respective performances here are just as good as any of their most well-known roles, and they are happy to hide in the background as extras or step up for a camera shot.