Break out the industrial strength Kleenex, cause you're gonna need it.
I'm not a huge fan of director Jonathan Demme's work, but I loved his documentary on the Talking Heads, which I previously reviewed. In 1993, Demme directed the film Philadelphia, a story about discrimination, and, in particular, AIDS discrimination. This film is so powerful and so beautifully done that I think we can forgive Mr. Demme for Crazy Mama and Caged Heat, both of which, by the way, were mysteriously passed up by the Oscar committee. Go figure…
Philadelphia, on the other hand, won two Academy Awards, one Best Actor for Tom Hanks and one Best Original Song for Bruce Springsteen's song "Streets of Philadelphia." I can safely say that it deserved them both, and should have won a few more, at least for Denzel Washington, if not for Antonio Banderas as well.
Andrew Beckett, played by Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, From the Earth to the Moon, et cetera…does he have a deep backfield or what?), is a young hotshot lawyer. He was recruited right out of school by the most prestigious law firm in Philadelphia, and he worked hard and rose fast. As we meet Andrew, he is arguing a case against Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington (He Got Game, Devil in a Blue Dress, Malcolm X), who is the local ambulance chaser attorney, with all the requisite cheesy TV commercials.
Andrew wins his case, and probably forgets Mr. Miller as soon as he gets out the door, because he's movin' on up (tooo the top, just in case you aren't aware of how the whole movin' on up thing works). The next time we meet him, he is summoned to the top floor, and told that he's been promoted to Senior Associate and has been given the biggest case the firm has ever handled. At this meeting, one of the partners asks Andrew about a mark on his forehead, which Andrew dismisses as a tennis accident.
But, it turns out that Andrew is hiding the fact that he has AIDS, and the illness has proceeded pretty significantly at this point. The mark on his head is actually a Karposi's Sarcoma lesion. He is still capable of doing the job, but the physical manifestations of the illness are beginning to make it hard for him to work at the office. He squeaks by, working at home and late at night and making excuses, but then it hits the fan. The brief for the big case, which he left on his desk for his secretary can't be found and it's gone from his computer. He finds this out while he's at the hospital after having gotten very sick.
The next thing we know, Andrew has been fired. He's pretty sure that the partners discovered he had AIDS, made the connection that he was gay, and set him up to be fired, out of good ole boy homophobia. After going through a number of attorneys in an attempt to file suit against his previous employers, he finds himself at the offices of Joe Miller. Joe turns him down, and we find out pretty quickly that Joe has a bit of a homophobia problem himself. Later though, when Joe personally witnesses a case of obvious discrimination against Andrew, his conscience gets the better of him, and he accepts the case (this is just a movie, so lawyers can have consciences).
The rest of the story is the follow through of the lawsuit story, Joe's coming to grips with a new world, and the eventual death of Andrew. I won't say more than that, so that you can enjoy it for yourself.
Let me say that this film is immensely powerful. Forget your wimpy Kramer vs. Kramers and Out of Africas and Love Storys and whatnot. This film is like a large emotional fire hose pointed right at you. Tom Hanks' and Denzel Washington's performances are superb, as are those of the supporting cast. And the story is well filmed and well presented, so the impact is at close to the maximum level allowed by law. I'm not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby, and this was during what was probably my fourth viewing. If you like a serious tearjerker, they don't get much better than this. The fact that it also deals with serious social issues, and has a lot of humor and heart just caps it off perfectly in my opinion. There are scenes in this film that rip out your heart and dance on it, and scenes of perfectly executed humor.
The role of Andrew's partner Miguel Alvarez, played by Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Evita, Of Love and Shadows), also deserves an honorable mention. Okay, so Antonio makes for a pretty good desperado and all, but this role (relatively early in his career), really stands out. It's interesting that someone who does such studboltly roles doesn't shy away at all from a very powerful portrayal of a gay man. He is very effective and believable as Andrew's aggressively protective and completely loyal lover.
The central theme of the film, lurking behind all of the action is homophobia and fear of AIDS, and just general fear and loathing of anything different from the average. This theme is very well explored here, from a number of different angles. In particular I think that the arc of Denzel Washington's character's point of view is extremely realistic and well done. From his early conversations with his wife about the case, to his taking gay joke flack from his law buddies for taking the case, to his being propositioned in a store, to his deepening understanding that discrimination isn't necessarily a color thing at all, his character is perfectly placed to naturally underscore the underlying issues. His own life is radically changed by his association with Andrew, the pursuit of justice, and the birth of his own child against this backdrop of frailty.
The 1.85 anamorphic video is of very high quality. I've never been able to really look at this DVD very critically due to being so engrossed in the story; but, there was certainly nothing that brought me out of the illusion at all. The box doesn't indicate that its anamorphic, so I almost didn't buy it, but it definitely is.
The audio is available in 5.1 and 2.0 format. This is not an action film by any means, but the surrounds do provide some subtle ambience, and are used well in a couple of musical interludes. The voices were easily understandable, and everything seemed pretty well mixed, if not very aggressively exploitative of the format.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can't say very much negative about the film at all, but I will complain about the lack of extras. A director's commentary track would have been most appreciated, or perhaps a making of documentary or some such thing. But this one has squat. It has a very simple menu, and that's it.
Oh, and while I'm whining, why isn't Malcolm X on DVD? Can someone explain that to me, like I'm a six-year-old, because I just don't get it.
I guess some may say that it's perhaps a bit sappy, but I don't think so. I know I was being manipulated like a puppet, but I enjoyed it, and it's a lot cheaper than psychotherapy. If you don't like your films socially conscious, or are one of the homophobes being portrayed, then you might want to skip it I guess.
See this film, period. It's one of the most moral, emotional, and beautiful films ever made, in my humble opinion. Sit on a towel if you value your upholstery because, if you have any soft spots, this one might find a couple of them. I love these very powerful films myself, because it's like a sort of karmic enema (now there's a nice image). I feel very cleansed and grounded afterwards. And, though some people would say things like "but its such a downer," it is in fact an immensely life affirming piece of work.
If only this one had some extras, it could have pegged the meter. But, the law says I have to include the level of extras in the score, and we are extremely serious about precedent in these here parts.
Acquitted because the law is on their side in this case.
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