Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen and Antonio Banderas
There are all kinds of reasons why I might watch a certain movie. It may be the director, the actors, the subject matter, or because of a review or recommendation. What first made me want to see Philadelphia was the casting of Tom Hanks. But now, after broadening my film knowledge in recent years, I wanted to pay closer attention to Denzel Washington's performance, and Jonathan Demme's directorial choices.
Demme has been responsible for one of the best thrillers ever made (The Silence of the Lambs), one of the best concert films (Stop Making Sense), as well as quirky comedies like Something Wild. Philadelphia isn't like any of those movies in terms of feel or genre; it's a serious drama, with an important message.
The story begins with lawyers Andrew Beckett (Hanks) and Joe Miller (Washington) battling each other in court. Beckett wins the case, and is promoted by his firm. He is entrusted with the task of representing one of the firm's most important clients. He's young, successful, and appears set to excel in his field. Miller is exposed as a TV celebrity and opportunist, who is more concerned with winning money for his clients than being ethical.
Beckett is homosexual and contracts AIDS. He develops lesions all over his body, and some of them are visible. One of the firm's partners notices and fears that Beckett may have AIDS. Soon after, Beckett is fired.
Do you remember when you first heard about AIDS? I remember it as a time of great panic. Nobody was immune from the disease, and we learned that it could be passed on by having a blood transfusion or unprotected sex. Imagine being a nurse and having a needle accidentally break your skin, and wondering if you would contract the disease. But, despite the fact that everyone was at risk, AIDS was primarily considered a disease which affected the gay community.
Should someone be fired for having a life-threatening disease? Does it matter whether their current performance is exceptional, even though it will almost certainly deteriorate in the future? This story is about Beckett's fight to sue his former firm for wrongful dismissal. After trying to enlist the help of nine other lawyers, he eventual turns to Miller. We discover that Miller is severely homophobic, and his ignorance of AIDS makes him fear Beckett's very presence. The story educates both the audience and Miller during its two-hour journey. Although we know much more about AIDS now, it was important to hear stories like this when the disease was relatively new on the scene.
Miller's initial instinct was to get as far away from Beckett as he could. In fact, some people will never see Philadelphia for similar reasons. Homophobia is not as common as it used to be, but it still exists. Another reason that the film won't have a large audience is the debilitating nature of the disease. It's uncomfortable to see somebody become ill, knowing that they might well die. I understand the decision to avoid that kind of subject matter, but entertainment comes in many forms. The reason I enjoy Philadelphia is the strength of the central performances from Hanks and Washington.
The second half of the film focuses on the courtroom battle between Miller, representing Beckett, and the firm which ultimately fired Beckett. If you enjoy courtroom dramas, Philadelphia does well with that aspect of the story. Demme makes some interesting choices, occasionally making the actors speak directly into the camera. It has the effect of placing us in the position of the judge or the witness giving evidence, and grabs our attention.
Hanks was at his peak in the 90s and early 2000s, and this Oscar-winning performance is one of his best. Washington has been great for 20 years, and his performance should not be missed either.
Philadelphia also won an Oscar for best song (Bruce Springsteen), and closes with another nominee (Neil Young). The music fits the mood perfectly.
If you enjoy good acting, serious drama, or stories that really matter, Philadelphia is worth your time. Some say that it is dated and overly-manipulative, but sometimes it's good to manipulate the audience when the message is important enough to warrant it. This is one of those times.
The North American Blu-ray release is from Twilight Time, and is limited to 3,000 copies. The picture quality is pleasing and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also does the job. It's available from Amazon, or directly from Screen Archives Entertainment, and comes with a small booklet.
Overall score 4.5/5
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