'Philadelphia' (1993) Impressions (Unedited)

January 28, 2009 § 1 Comment

Here is the tagline for this movie:

“No one would take on his case… until one man was willing to take on the system.” Now think, how many films can you think of that fit this description, or even have the same clichéd theme behind it? And that’s the problem, this tagline speaks for the entire film, it’s just too damned broad.

Philadelphia is a heavy-handed court room drama which aims to tackle the prejudice and misinformation surrounding the AIDS disease. Andrew Beckett’s life is going great. He’s working in the most prestigious law film in Philadelphia and has just been promoted to an important case. The only problem is that Beckett has AIDS and his employers don’t know. When they do find out, they fire Beckett (Tom Hanks) under the excuse that his job performance had become unsatisfactory, and the latest incident where Beckett seemingly misplaced a ‘complaint’ which had to be filed to the court was the last straw. Having been let go by his former firm, Beckett seeks the help of homophobic ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to file a lawsuit against Beckett’s former law firm alleging that they had fired him, not because of his poor job performance, but because they found out that he had AIDS. Miller, despite his bigoted hangups accepts the case eventually, and both men engage on a journey to find justice in the court room.

It’s very much an issue film which has been made for the sole purpose of teaching us what AIDS is, how it is transmitted, what a horrible and devastating disease it is, the social devastation and isolation it provokes etc… etc… It stars Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, two guys who have been cast because they have a great deal of caché with the audience. Tom Hanks especially has an impeccable screen image which resonates. Quite simply, everybody loves the guy, and he came to this film from a series of ‘All-American, regular nice guy‘ roles. Both of these fine actors were obviously cast to bring some mass appeal to the film but I suppose that’s fine if what the film’s aim is is to bring a message across.

The film is highly melodramatic and saccharine but at the same time it is entertaining and engaging to watch. This is mainly down to Hank’s performance as the AIDS riddled gay man trying to take on the system. Oh, did I not mention he was gay? Not only is it a film about AIDS, it’s a film about gay rights too! Two issues in one film, Hollywood must have been creaming themselves. Luckily, the theme of discrimination and prejudice against gays doesn’t overshadow the film’s main point. Gay rights takes a bit of a back seat as does Hank’s fairly timid relationship with Banderas which portrays very little sexual intimacy. You don’t see them kiss, have sex or anything along those lines and I’ve heard people level this as a criticism of a film. Personally, I’m not bothered, as I think at the time this was made, showing this kind of behavior would have distracted from the central theme of the film. I mean, my God, Brokeback Mountain only came out a few years ago and at the time it caused a huge stir because of its content. In 1993, Philadelphia would never have been able to support the weight of the material if you’d had an overtly gay relationship on show as well as the AIDS thing. But at the same time though, it further reinforces the suspicion that the producers wanted something that had mass appeal, not something to stir up controversy. Tom Hanks is gay but we all sort of know he’s not really gay is he? He’s just pretending to be gay for the purpose of the story. He’s just a regular guy like you or me after all…

If it hasn’t become obvious by now, what lets the film down is its oversimplified, clichéd narrative which wants to have its cake and eat it too. They want a film about AIDS and they want the main character to be gay, but not show any sexual intimacy. Hank’s family are all incredibly supportive and loving and here again there is little room for complexity. There is no prejudice in his family surrounding the illness and everybody seems to accept it without question, there is only a smidgen of conflict, when Andrew’s sister mention that the court case will take a large toll on his parents; this is quickly overlooked. We have this very overdone scene where Hanks listens to some opera and becomes emotionally distraught by the beauty of the piece, causing Washington who’s witnessing all of this to completely change his whole way of thinking about Hank’s character, his sexual orientation and in essence, teaching him to be a more accepting and ‘better’ person. There’s nothing particularly bad about the scene, it shows a man who’s really in a great deal of pain and wants to live, yet fated to die miserably and Hanks portrays this well. It’s just that the scene is reminiscent of everything in the film, as in – Not. Subtle. At. all. Also, (spoiler) the ending with the home videos of Hank’s childhood is so horribly sentimental and overlong, just to twist the knife between the audience’s heart strings one more time before the credits role. Again, this is emblematic of the film as a whole and a better film wouldn’t have to resort to such dramatic and clichéd scenes.

Somebody made the point of referring to the film as a ‘made-for-TV-movie’ and I would agree. It is that, plus the casting of some very well-known and gifted actors. I mean, Hanks and Washington can’t escape the broad nature of the film and so don’t have much space for deep character development but they still do a great job. Hanks in particular is very good and I believe he won his first Best Actor Oscar for this role. The film itself though isn’t great, and if it were released now I think it would be greeted with a fair bit of cynicism from critics, probably noting correctly that the film is perfect ‘Oscar-bait’ material – a Man vs. The System ‘issue’ film, which aims to challenge our social prejudices in the most dramatic way possible.

But again, let’s remember, this was only two years after Boyz n the Hood was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay and that was a film so horribly over-bearing with its message that it was unintentionally funny in places. Boyz n the Hood had its time and place though and the same applies to Philadelphia. It was one of the first major Hollywood films centred on AIDS and so it was perhaps more relevant than it is now.

I feel like I’ve treated the film rather harshly, but the fact is that the material is fairly unremarkable when regarded now but raised to a high standard because of the acting strength of the two lead performers. A good film, but by no means great.

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