Time for another entry in the 2016 Blind Spot entries, a challenge issued to us bloggers by Ryan @ The Matinee. This month I finally crossed off...
Why did I pick it? For starters, I'm a fan of this film's two stars: Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. I've seen most of the work by both, why not this? Next, this is a movie that figured heavily in the Oscars the year it was released, marking it as a film of some significance. Hanks himself took home the first of his two Academy Awards for Best Actor. I also picked it because while it was a blind spot, it felt like it wasn't. Over the years, I've heard and read so much about this movie I thought I knew practically everything about how it plays out. On top of that, I did manage to see bits and pieces here and there during that time. Finally, I picked it because I bought the DVD five or six years ago, put it on the shelf, and never moved it except for the occasional dusting.
The story concerns Andrew Beckett (Hanks), a young hotshot lawyer quickly rising toward the top of the large firm he works for. In fact, we meet him just as he gets a promotion and is handed an extremely important case. Unbeknownst to them, he is also a homosexual and, more importantly, infected with AIDS. In short order, his physical condition deteriorates due to the disease. The case he's working on doesn't go as smoothly as hoped and he is fired. Andrew decides to sue the firm for unlawful termination, surmising that they found out he has AIDS and fired him because of it. After a lengthy and fruitless search for an attorney to represent him, Joe Miller (Washington) agrees to take his case.
Obviously, Philadelphia presents itself as a courtroom drama. As such we spend lots of time on examinations and cross-examinations. Honestly, I found this part of the movie the least compelling. A large part of that is because it felt like a slow march to a foregone conclusion. My own prior knowledge of the film might be partly to blame, but the film never seems to create sufficient doubt that the case will turn out exactly the way you think it will. A more troubling reason for this is that the lawyers on both sides are rather shabby. On the side of the firm, it's a faceless team who take turns speaking up and never say anything much. On our hero's side, Miller isn't much better and never really seems to prove his client's case because of how many questions he didn't ask. A number of these were questions I thought of and I have no training nor experience whatsoever when it comes to the law. Instead, we get a string of empty antics revolving around either asking someone if they're gay or calling them out for hating gay people. The outcome, as it turns out, is entirely dependent on the common sense of the jury. We learn this in just a minute or so of dialogue between them in a film that runs for two hours. This isn't the fault of the actors, it's a problem with the script. You shouldn't leave the film thinking you don't want any of these people representing you, which is precisely how I felt. Pardon me for being confused about how Ron Nyswaner getting an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay for this.
Nyswaner redeems himself somewhat because the movie outside the courtroom is far better. How AIDS affects Beckett, his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas), and Beckett's entire family is touching and heart-breaking. This is especially true if you can put yourself in 1993 when being diagnosed with AIDS was a death sentence sure to be swiftly executed. We really get the sense that the people who love Beckett are not just looking at a man that's dying, but one they feel is already dead. There is no hope of beating the disease, or of anything ahead for him in life but pain and suffering before closing his eyes for the final time. As the center of this sadness, Hanks brings a quiet dignity to the role. He's a man who realizes he has a fight to fight, but also that he needs others to fight it for him. Beckett is resigned to his personal fate, but not to others wronging him.
How Miller views things is more important, even if less touching, than what's going on with Andrew and his family. Miller is a classic homophobe. He despises gay people and their lifestyle and only takes the case because he recognizes that a law was broken. Through his character and most of the other males in the film, we really feel the paranoia over AIDS that informed our collective attitude towards homosexuals. It was a genuine thing as, at that time, it was still seen as a disease that had its genesis in the gay community and only infected gay people. In '93, we were still learning about it and just starting to move away from the idea that you had to be gay to get it. Philadelphia captures all of this exceptionally well. As the face of this side of the equation, Denzel Washington is outstanding in his role. While it's true that the plot revolves around Hanks' character, it's Washington's that actually has an arc. He guides us through it without a lot of big, showy moments to declare that that's what is going on. Because of this, I actually think he gives the best performance in the film, not Hanks. It's also because Hanks doesn't really have a whole lot to do. He physically looks the part. He lost lots of weight and purposely thinned his hair to do so. Those are things The Academy loves. Other than that, and the brilliant opera scene, he only has to sit around and look sickly which was taken care of by his physical appearance. Hanks is excellent at it, but it's Washington who handles all the heavy lifting. Alas, Denzel was not nominated. I have seen two of Hanks' competitors in the Best Actor category this year, Laurence Fishburne (What's Love Got to Do With It) and Liam Neeson (Schindler's List). Hanks does nothing wrong, but I think either of those guys would have been a far better choice.
I am very pleased to have finally watched this all the way through. My misgivings with the courtroom portion of the film aside, it works as a time capsule of where we were as a society, how far we have come, and far we have to go. It's a heartfelt tale of someone being wronged and doing something about it. It's also about the fragility of life and trying to get as much out of it as possible. Finally, it's about a society in the midst of change and struggling with the growing pains that come along with that.
2016 Blind Spot Entries
2015 Blind Spot Entries