Tom Hanks, in the most artistically challenging and physically and emotionally punishing role of his career, plays Andy Beckett, a whiz-kid lawyer who is rising to the top of his career in Philadelphia’s most powerful and prestigious white-bread WASP law firm.
But while Andy’s achievements and hard work have catapulted him to success, he’s also been hiding from his business associates the fact that he’s gay. And now, the scythe of cruelty has made an even more devastating incision in his dignity – Andy has AIDS.
Nine days after this discovery, even the skull caps he wears to work can’t disguise the first lesions of Kaposi sarcoma. Even his boss (Jason Robards) – who is like a father figure – turns on him and Andy is fired.
Thus begins a scandalous lawsuit in which one sick man tries to defend his reputation and validate his life by taking on a monolith of impenetrable legal strength and corporate power in order to fight discrimination and injustice.
Andy’s uphill struggle is further exacerbated by his own defence lawyer (Denzel Washington), a personal injury attorney (read ‘ambulance chaser’) with a small office, minimal experience, and prejudices of his own.
“Call me old-fashioned,” Mr Washington tells his wife, “call me conservative, but I don’t want to be in bed with nobody who’s got more hair on his chest than me.”
But a black man understands discrimination as well as anybody else, and when Mr Washington joins forces with the gay man he fears and distrusts to uphold the law, his inner confrontation with his own prejudices about homosexuality provides an already gripping film with an additional subtext of conflict.
One of the most moving things about Philadelphia is the honest and un-manipulative way these disparate men bond together in a fight for human rights.
One of the great strengths in this movie is that it may hopefully inspire audiences to re-examine their own moral judgements about people who are no less human just because they are different.
Tom Hanks is galvanising as the dying man who refuses to be a victim. Trying desperately to keep every ball in the air while his strength is running out, his race against the clock is a plight no compassionate viewer will fail to understand.
Grief, rage, terror and self-doubt are bad enough without dealing with the additional stress of prejudice, bigotry, homophobia and ignorance.
And Denzel Washington is equally forceful as he uncovers a climate of hate, disgust and fear of homosexuals in the “city of brotherly love” which led to the illegal job termination of one, with AIDS only the cover-up excuse for a much deeper prejudice.
But for anyone who might be deterred by the subject matter, it’s important to point out that Philadelphia is not really a movie about homosexuality or even AIDS as much as a plea for all human rights that-celebrate family values, justice and the fairness of the American legal system.
The courtroom scenes that take up most of the film are as taut and suspenseful as The Caine Mutiny, and special praise must be reserved for Mary Steenburgen, in the difficult role of the law firm’s defence attorney who must repudiate Mr Hanks’ lifestyle as well as impugn his professional reputation even though she hates herself personally while doing it.
Antonio Banderas lends exceptional support in the minor role of Hanks’ lover, as does Joanne Woodward as his sympathetic and supportive mother, who says “I didn’t raise my kids to sit in the back of the bus – get in there and fight for your rights!” even though her heart is breaking with sadness and pain.
The final hospital scenes are unbearable, so be forewarned and armed with Kleenex.
Walking around earlier in anticipation of the emotional floodgate that is about to come, dragging his I.V. and listening to Maria Callas’ aria of hope from Andrea Chénier, Hanks says more about courage in the face of adversity with his face than anything else in Ron Nyswaner’s flawless screenplay.
Anna Deavere Smith