“No one would take on his case… until one man was willing to take on the system.”
Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Roberta Maxwell
Synopsis: When a man with AIDS is fired by his law firm because of his condition, he hires a homophobic small time lawyer as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Philadelphia is one of those films that shrieks ‘Gimme an Oscar!,’ but there is something so knowing about this film, such a self-awareness about its sensitivity to the plight of those with AIDS, that I can’t help feeling a little repulsed by it all. Philadelphia isn’t the only film to attempt to shamelessly manipulate the emotions of an audience, but rarely has a film been as blatant about it as this one is. At the end of the day, for all its high production values and first class acting, Philadelphia is only really one step up from those dreaded ‘disease of the week’ TV movies.
The aim of this film is to highlight the unfairness of discrimination, not only against HIV sufferers but against homosexuals too, and it does this in a way that leaves no room for ambiguities or doubts about the beliefs and motivations of the characters involved. Sexuality and sickness are emotive issues and, more often than not, when confronted with them people’s reactions and judgments are inevitably clouded by fear and uncertainty. But in Philadelphia a complex issue is so crassly compartmentalised that everything is black and white, cut and dried. In this film all homosexuals are noble, self-effacing, fun-loving and sensitive, while white heterosexual America is presented as a bunch of pot-bellied ageing businessmen sucking on their cigars while they swap jokes about faggots and hot yoghurt, and a smug, condescending defence lawyer in the form of Mary Steenburgen. The only issue of worth it raises is whether an AIDS victim who has contracted the disease through no fault of their own is more deserving of our ‘tolerance’ (for want of a better word) than someone who is stricken because of the lifestyle they choose to lead.
Tom Hanks gives a sensitive performance as the hotshot lawyer who finds himself fired from a leading law firm when it is discovered he has AIDS. Sadly, because his role has MARTYR written all over it in huge letters, it is impossible for Hanks to get beneath the surface of a character that has no depth and individuality (Hanks’ character is a mirror image of his loyal partner, played by Antonio Banderas). We learn that he has a cloyingly supportive family, but little else and, while the plot reveals that he had gay sex with a stranger in a cinema, we get little insight into who he really is. Denzel Washington has more success as the homophobic lawyer who takes up Hanks’ case when everyone else turns their back on him, although his path to ‘redemption’ is, again, a horribly predictable one, and the parallels drawn with the discrimination experienced by African-Americans give the film an over-sincere and preachy tone.
In the film’s final scenes we are shown scratchy, grainy home-movie footage of Hanks’ character frolicking on a beach as a kid, presumably to ram home the message that here is an innocent, deserving of all our compassion and understanding, and to tacitly point an accusing finger at all those who fail to be moved.
When all is said and done, this film doesn’t just shriek ‘Gimme an Oscar!’ — it shrieks ‘Gimme an Oscar — I pushed all the right buttons.’
(Reviewed 20th March 2008)