For some reason, this week I decided to watch #8 on the ABA’s Top 25, a movie that may be the most gut-wrenching on the list…
1993 dir. Jonathan Demme
Lawyer movies, like the courts themselves, are often forums for showcasing the pressing moral issues of the day. Want to make a thriller about gun violence that doesn’t consist entirely of gun violence? Give it a day in court. How about the debate over evolution? Let’s hear the lawyers hash it out. Rape? Lawyer movie.
“Philadelphia” is an “issues” movie in the same mold. It tells the story of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a talented lawyer who is abruptly fired shortly after contracting AIDS. He wants to sue his employer for wrongful dismissal, but he can’t find many attorneys interested in taking his case. It seems that homophobia runs deep in the legal community in Philadelphia. In the end, the only lawyer who Andrew can entice to represent him is Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a “TV lawyer” (said sneeringly) who normally spends his time chasing ambulances, not fighting for civil rights.
Already, “Philadelphia” is touching on a few lawyer movie tropes. Andrew is an attorney-turned-defendant, a classic role switch that the writers of these films seem to love. It also works as a lawyer buddy movie, maybe better than any other I’ve watched so far (save for Vinny and Lisa, of course – they are the best legal team of all time).
Andrew and Joe make an odd couple as attorney and client. One is black, the other white. One is straight, the other gay. One advertises on TV and the other hails from a prestigious, elite firm. Not only that, at the beginning of the film, Joe is openly uncomfortable with homosexuality and phobic about AIDS. Much of the movie’s moralizing is conveyed through his arc. As he and Andrew get to know each other and become friends, and he sees Andrew’s humanity up close, his own views evolve. He becomes a conduit, communicating the lessons he learns to the jury and audience.
This formulation might feel a little clunky to some, but I find it to be pretty effective. I also just really enjoy the setup of a lawyer defending another lawyer. It makes for great little moments of mutual appreciation. When Joe does a good job, Andrew can recognize the quality of his craft as an insider. And both Hanks and Washington deliver stellar performances that make you really like both men and believe their friendship.
So “Philadelphia” succeeds, mostly, on at least two levels: as a showcase for high-quality lawyering and a showcase for the scourge of homophobia and the devastation of AIDS. But I might be burying the lede here because above all, this movie is a humanist drama. And if you like that kind of thing, grab some tissues and rent it right away. This movie is achingly, powerfully sad.
I’m personally fond of this mode of filmmaking: movies that risk sentimentality to try to capture the fundamental goodness of people amid the heartbreak of the world. So I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with similar proclivities. Just, really, keep the tissues on hand. Even the song makes me teary.