School Ties: A Film Review

By Kai-Arne Zimny

Photo credit: Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s 1955. David Greene (Brendan Fraser), a Jewish boy from a working class family, leaves his home, the industrial city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to go to a prestigious New England prep boarding school for his senior year. His ticket in? A football scholarship since David is an outstanding quarterback! “Don’t tell people any more than they need to know,” the school team’s football coach advises David upon arrival, hinting at the social gap between David’s future schoolmates and blue-collar people like David and himself.

However, David is neither able nor willing to hide his social background from his school and teammates, boys from rich families across the board. Despite the differences, he is able to bond with them and even become popular quickly. However, just as quickly he is confronted with the sad truth that there’s yet another difference the boys won’t be willing to overlook that easily – that he’s Jewish. 

School Ties (1992) is a powerful drama about an issue only sparsely addressed in American film: Antisemitism in the United States. Producer and co-writer Dick Wolf drew on his own experiences to craft this story full of tension. To the uninformed viewer, the depiction of anti-Semitic sentiment comes as a shock. Surely one would expect guys with shaved heads and jump boots to be the epitome of Antisemitism. It seems less likely that well-dressed, well-educated, and (more or less) well-mannered boys headed for Harvard, Princeton or Yale would take such a reproachable stance toward Jewish people. Yet, this very discrepancy makes School Ties all the more worth watching!

Some critics find fault with the movie, claiming that setting it in the past might lead viewers to the erroneous conclusion that the issue of American Antisemitism is a purely historical one without contemporary relevance. Although this point may be justified, I find it preposterous to hold that against School Ties. One should never forget that a movie is more than the message it delivers, that a movie theater isn’t a classroom. In other words: It’s not the moviemakers’ responsibility to deliver a complete discourse on the issue they decided to tackle. Movies are works of art, not textbooks.

Undoubtedly, one artistic feature of School Ties is how it captures a piece of the 1950s on screen. Every scene feels real, to a large extent due to the great cast. No wonder the movie spurred the careers of a handful of then relatively unknown young actors, such as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris O’ Donnell. And last but not least, Brendan Fraser who so well portrays a young man in a personal conundrum that has nothing to do with his person per se.