Friday, July 16, 2010

And Justice for All

Film: Philadelphia
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television

Hollywood often gets a bug up its ass about one cause or another. Often, this results in a pretty good film, or even a great one. Films like Hotel Rwanda happen not because someone wanted to make a movie about Africa, but because there was a cause that needed to be brought to light to the rest of the world. The same is true for the film Philadelphia, which resulted in an Oscar win for Tom Hanks and one for Bruce Springsteen for best original song.

The story here is a pretty simple one, which tends to work well for cause movies, since it gives the audience an obvious good guy and an equally obvious bad guy. Andrew Beckett (Hanks) is an up-and-coming attorney with a powerful law firm in Philadelphia. The partners in the firm are consistently impressed with Beckett’s work, and give him charge over their most important client. What Beckett isn’t telling them is that a) he’s gay and b) he’s HIV-positive and suffering from AIDS.

Sadly, one of the partners has had experience with AIDS patients and knows what the signs of the disease look like. He spots a lesion on Beckett’s head, and before we can say “Andrew Beckett has AIDS,” he’s being sandbagged at work and his efforts are being sabotaged by co-workers, almost certainly with the tacit approval of the firm’s head, Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards).

This leads to Beckett losing his job. Convinced that he was fired not for incompetence but because he has AIDS, he recruits a lawyer one step above an ambulance chaser. This lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) initially doesn’t want the case, not because he thinks he can’t win, but because he dislikes homosexuals. Eventually, however, seeing Beckett struggling with the case and living through obvious discrimination, he decides to come on board and try the case.

That’s pretty much the whole story here. There are no big surprises. In fact, during the start of the trial, Miller comments that there will be no surprise witnesses and no tearful confessions on the witness stand, and there aren’t. We see Beckett’s struggle, watch the court proceedings and the skillful and half-truthful attacks from the defense attorney (Mary Steenburgen) and see Andrew’s struggles both with the damage done to his reputation and the damage done to his body by the disease. Along the way, Miller learns to respect this man who is dying in front of him, and to come to some level of acceptance with the gay community.

Any message movie, or cause movie, tends to be simplistic in terms of story because the goal is to get the message out rather than confuse the viewers. What’s worth mentioning here, though, is that Andrew Beckett is not portrayed as a saint or a perfect man. He certainly has his character flaws, missteps, and mistakes, all of which are brought out in the trial. It would be easy to make him someone so easy to like that we root for him. It’s more impressive to make him a flawed, human individual, and make us want to root for him anyway, and that’s what Hanks and Demme manage here.

There are also great performances. Hanks, naturally, is the one easiest to pour praise on, but there really isn’t a bad one. Denzel Washington gives one of his better performances here as the ambulance chaser-turned crusader, managing to convey a lot of tenderness in the second half of the film with a gesture or a look. Another good performance here is Antonio Banderas as Miguel, Beckett’s partner. It would be easy to look at Banderas’s career and expect him to do little but look pretty, but he too is real, and provides an excellent counterpoint to Hanks’s character. It’s a moving portrayal, and done beautifully.

I don’t generally like films that slam me over the head with a message, and Philadelphia could have easily been that movie. It isn’t, though. Instead, it is a movie first, and a message second, which makes the message all that more effective and penetrating.

Why to watch Philadelphia: A smart movie about a cause that still rankles.
Why not to watch: It’s not like you expect it to be happy, do you?

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