This is a movie more for those of us who watch from a distance than for those who have AIDS and know better.
"Philadelphia" is a film about fear and love in the world of AIDS. It is also about the suffocating sycophancy of an establishment law firm whose partners, after negotiating the track to the top, demand that everyone climbing after them leave their humanity at the door. Director Jonathan Demme uses a straightforward story as the structure for a complex play of raw emotion.
Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, an ascendant lawyer at a Philadelphia firm that is encrusted in codes and rules of behavior. Wearing the jaunty air of a man who loves what he's doing and does it well, Andy wins a top spot when senior partner Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) hands him the firm's plum case and promotes him to senior associate.
After a lesion is spotted on his forehead by a partner who feeds on the missteps of others, Andy's final brief for the big case disappears from hard disk and hard copy. He alleges sabotage, the partners allege incompetence, and Andy is fired by the mentor whose great affection for him evaporates. "We feel it isn't fair to keep you here when your prospects are limited," Wheeler says in farewell.
Wheeler's swift decision to erase the patient pulls us deeply into the well of fear that surrounds the deadly disease. Andy brings a discrimination suit with the reluctant Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) as his defense attorney. It becomes touchingly clear that he has brought the suit not in anger, but because his own case has become an extension of his deep commitment to working for justice; and it is justice he wants in this "social death which precedes the actual physical one."
This is a movie more for those of us who watch from a distance than for those who have AIDS and know better. They live with lesions and fever and nausea. They know well that the world is full of people who still believe AIDS patients have reaped their just reward; it is full of hands washed, gazes averted and friends suddenly stiff and uncomfortable who talk in stilted phrases and then leave.
Tom Hanks is deeply compelling as the sharp humanist who loves the law, his family, his partner and music. Denzel Washington is impressive as the lawyer who confronts his fear of AIDS and homosexuality. Mary Steenburgen smiles annoyingly through her legal defense of the accused partners until we realize she is what professional women are supposed to be: sharp, smart, and smiling - always smiling. Joanne Woodward conveys the unconditional love a mother brings to a child at any age, and Jason Robards is predictably convincing as the partner untouched by compassion and secure in his ignorance.
It is Tom Hanks' superbly subtle performance that brings visual reality to the disease we won't talk about even as it is all around us, and it is his convincing blend of intelligence, humor and warmth that may force us to re-examine our own fear.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 498
Copyright (c) Illusion
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