Philadelphia Review

Because Thanksgiving is approaching, I thought I’d do a month of reviews from my archive of films starring Tom Hanks (or, T. Hanks). This is perhaps my oldest written review of a Hanks film. (Ok, that honor actually goes to “The DaVinci Code,” one of my first reviews ever, but you don’t need me to explain why I’m not posting that one). This one is from September 1, 2008.

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, perhaps the most revered white and black male actors of their generation, respectively — in a film about homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic. That’s the easiest thing to overlook and perhaps the most brilliant part about “Philadelphia:” Never once do you feel an ounce of racial tension between their two characters in this film. It’s as if to say that we’ve broken a social barrier like this before and we’ll do it again.

The film follows Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a young star lawyer in a major Philadelphia firm who learns his HIV has become AIDS just as he is promoted. Before long, Beckett finds himself fired for incompetency, though he believes it is based on his disease. He seeks the help of Joe Miller (Washington), a civil attorney, who at first turns him away due to his own homophobia, but later accepts.

The film sort of baits those of us interested in courtroom dramas, but then challenges us with some reflective, personal, human moments. While the film is about this legal battle, “Silence of the Lambs” filmmaker Jonathan Demme makes sure to remind you that its really about a man and his family struggling with a terrible disease.

The genius of the script is that it blatantly plays on American prejudices about homosexuality and AIDS, reminding us of our ignorance about the virus and its disease in the way that it is contracted most specifically. We are supposed to come at it from Joe’s perspective, slowly coming to understand that our homophobia is unfounded. It’s not flawless execution as some of the ignorance feels artistically forced, but most of it is very real. This is one of those movies that uses such a sharp societal lens that it will leave you with “shaken head syndrome” — you can’t help but shake your head based on how terrible and prejudiced some of the things said and depicted in this film are.

In the illustrious career arcs of its stars, “Philadelphia” seems to reside on the upward portion near the apex. While awards tend to make people think of the most dramatic performances, it is the way Hanks shows the debilitating effects of the disease through the course of the film that makes him Oscar-worthy. Washington’s performance is familiar, but what makes it stand out is that transformation in perspective we see him undergo.

This is a story driven by content and meant to play toward emotions. It is meant to be sad and uplifting. Historically, it is a landmark film in its willingness to address AIDS and homosexuality in the pre-“Rent” era of entertainment. While it is a courtroom drama and meant to handle a serious subject matter, its more simplistic and raw than profound and artistic.

“Philadelphia” is a very important story sandwiched between a great Bruce Springsteen song and a good Neil Young song that belongs among the library of issue-focused films.


4/5 Stars


Philadelphia (1993)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington


You can be the first one to leave a comment.

Leave a Comment