Philadelphia (1993)

Directed by Jonathan Demme


Philadelphia was an important film.  It’s one of those stories with a goal beyond just this story it’s telling.  Though it’s presented as a story about a single man wrongfully terminated because he has AIDS, the film is really about the way we view homosexuality and AIDS at least in 1993, though the lessons are certainly still important today.

From what I can tell, the film was advertised as this prestige drama with Denzel and Hanks, two big movie stars.  The film opens with a Bruce Springsteen song, and every element of the packaging of this film feels like an invitation to an audience that might not otherwise see a film like this.  The stars have to be big and marketable, and it has to open with a song by The Boss to let you know that it’s okay to see this movie.

I mean, I have to assume that at this time, someone going to see a Denzel or a Hanks movie isn’t the type of person to seek out a film like this.  At least in the case of Hanks, before this film he was known as the guy from such movies as Sleepless in SeattleA League of their OwnTurner & HoochThe ‘BurbsJoe Versus the Volcano and Big.  Oh and Splash too.

For the most part, those are comedies, and in the case of Sleepless, a very famous romantic comedy.  This film is sort of the opposite.  It had to have been a little shocking if you came into the movie expecting to see just another prestige courtroom drama (this being the year after A Few Good Men).

Denzel Washington plays lawyer Joe Miller who, after some resistance, accepts Andrew Beckett’s (Hanks) request to defend him in a wrongful termination suit against his former law firm.  Beckett, himself a lawyer, is fired for negligence, though he believes it’s because of his disease and the misconceptions and bigotry lobbed at his way of life.

Though this film is about Andrew Beckett, it’s really about us.  Throughout the film there are shots of characters talking to each other but looking almost directly into the camera, as if talking to the audience.  Along with the Bruce Springsteen song “Streets of Philadelphia,” the film starts with a montage of shots of the city, and specifically the people.  It seems a celebration of this community, of its diverse and hardworking individuals.  In some cases the people onscreen look at the camera, even smiling and waving.  It’s like a tourism video telling you to come visit this wonderful town.  And then this is the same community that pressures people like Andy to withdraw from the world, to stay quiet.

Like his former employers, led by Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards), Andy is pressured to hide his way of life.  They reason that he became infected due to a negligent lifestyle.  They view the disease as the “gay plague,” and use it as another opportunity to vilify homosexuals.

Joe Miller, himself a person of color, is a part of this bigoted majority, but when he identifies with the mistreatment Andy now receives, he takes his case.  Andy first proposes the case to him, and Joe turns it down.  After shaking Andy’s hand and then learning of his disease, his first response is to go to his doctor and worry that he may have contracted the diseases. In a conversation with his wife, he criticizes the gay lifestyle, perhaps surprising us with how backwards his way of thinking is.  Going into this movie, I knew that Denzel would be Hanks’ champion, but I didn’t fully realize where his character began.  This arc, however, is supremely important.  It matters that Joe is in one camp at the start, then recognizes the truth, and learns to accept Andy.

In the library one night, Joe researches a case when he sees Andy diligently working away on his own case, which no lawyer has taken.  Visibly afflicted with the disease, Andy has to deal with constant stares and a request that he go to a private room.  It’s not about the disease, it’s about how people look at him.  Joe watches this unfold, at first hiding from Andy, but this also follows a moment in which a librarian walks by and just stares at Joe, as if expecting the worse.  As a black man, Joe just has to deal with being made to feel ‘other,’ and then Andy’s own ‘otherness’ reminds him of the way he’s been treated.

Joe accepts the case because he wants to defend the law.  Even once the trial starts, his views towards Andy’s lifestyle haven’t changed.  When a young man tries to hit on him, Joe becomes furious for the man thinking he might be gay.  He’s a defender of the law, but he still doesn’t accept views that aren’t his own.  Eventually he gets there, of course, and they win the case.

It’s all to be expected, but it’s a pretty powerful journey.  Philadelphia earns its sentimentality because we know that the aims of the film extend beyond the movie screen.  Unlike other movies *coughA River Runs Through Itcough* the sentimentality works because we know there is a real battle being fought with the public consciousness.  This movie was trying to convince a lot of people who might be hard to convince that people with different lifestyles than yours deserve the same respect as everyone else.

And the sentimentality worked for me on an gut level.  When Andy does finally pass away, it’s heartbreaking, even if it was expected.  He’s a martyr of sorts, and the film ends with actual home video footage of Tom Hanks as a young boy.  I can’t really describe why this affected me, but it goes beyond Hanks’ character or any of the politics (if you can call it that) of the film.  Andrew Beckett was just a human, but in the hoopla of the story and it’s far-reaching influence, he became a larger than life figure, both for better or worse.  Like in any case that achieves such attention, the person at the center of the trial becomes a symbol which you can support or attack.  But Beckett was just another human who never asked to become this person.  And though he and Miller win the case, he still passes away, and we’re reminded that he was once nothing more than a kid, like we all were.

God, it really sounds cheesy, but even now it still gets to me.  I’m not thinking about Beckett’s character, but I’m thinking about other people I know and about myself.  I don’t know how to write about this without it sounding somewhat self-indulgent or redundant, but the end of Philadelphia taps into that nerve we all share.  It cuts deep, I guess you could say, and it earns all that otherwise sappy sentimentality.

Up Next: Rachel Getting Married (2008), An American in Paris (1951), Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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