School Ties

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.


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