Written by Ron Nyswaner
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Although I am thrilled about the “warp speed” vaccine, y’all better thank ACT UP. The efforts that cause this type of fast track are solely because of early AIDS Activists.
The juxtaposition with how quickly this happened relative to AIDS is stomach churning. 40 years after its discovery we still have no vaccine, still have no cure.
690 000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2019. 32.7 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic.
Lest you forget how deep homophobia runs. – Keith Theriot
It’s funny in a way that I thought this film was older than it actually is. I was surprised while watching it to hear the characters talk about events which take place in 1990, and even more surprised when I checked at IMDB.com and found that the film was originally released in 1994. This was the first film released commercially by a major studio which dealt head-on with the subject of AIDS. It was groundbreaking in its time, and is still quite a good film.
Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and Joseph Miller (Denzel Washington) are adversarial lawyers in the city of Philadelphia. Miller represents residents of a neighborhood where Beckett’s client is building a skyscraper. Miller is also known as the “TV Guy”, a lawyer who seemingly thinks any and every case has merit to it if it means a buck for him.
Andy already knows he has AIDS but hasn’t “come out” to his co-workers. He’s quite successful and well-liked. He’s just been made a senior partner and given a prestigious case. Just as this happens, his AIDS becomes full-blown. For a while he is able to duck being seen by anyone (due to the fact that the AIDS lesions will give him away). A crucial complaint brief which Andy made sure was at the office suddenly turns up missing, both the hardcopy and from his computer. At the last minute it is found, but the partners cite this incident as justification for firing him for incompetence.
After visiting nine other lawyers, Andy ends up at Miller’s office. The reaction by Washington when Hanks first tells him he has AIDS is great – he’s afraid of everything he touches; as if he can get it just by breathing the same air as him. The camera shows this so well by cutting from Washington’s eyes to the things Andy has touched; objects he has laid on Miller’s desk. It’s a great bit of direction by Jonathan Demme as he conveys Miller’s unease and discomfort without him talking about it until after Andy leaves the office.
Andy has come there there because he’s decided to sue for wrongful termination against his old firm, alleging he’s actually been fired due to his condition. It reeks of a set-up based on one misplaced complaint in all his years of service to the firm. At first Miller turns him down. A chance meeting one night in a law library tugs at Miller’s conscience, and he signs on to represent Andy at the trial.
Watching this again all these years later, the trial really seemed secondary to me. In some ways it might be the passing of time – it would be very unusual to find a company which would fire someone over AIDS. Right now it’s probably more dangerous to your employment status to voice your political opinions than to have AIDS. What struck me most watching this was the deterioration of Andy during the year or so represented in the film. He’s aware of his status in the beginning of the film, but been living with it for quite some time. However, he looks fairly healthy and as sharp as a tack mentally. As time passes, his condition deteriorates. The makeup is outstanding, even in close-ups it looked extremely authentic. Watching that deterioration brought tears to my eyes more than once.
This is an incredible bit of acting by Tom Hanks. As he leaves Miller’s office he’s devastated by his rejection. Just the pained look on his face conveys a host of emotions. Was it really such a short time ago that the world was like this? It seems like ancient history. The make-up is a big part of the role, but Hanks brings Andy out through all of that. He’s not overtly gay, or flamboyant in the way Sean Hayes’ Jack McFarland is on Will and Grace. He’s a man living in a time that doesn’t quite accept him and his sexuality yet. He has a nice and very tasteful apartment; he’s intelligent and funny. He’s well-liked by his co-workers and subordinates in the firm.
His partners want to condemn him for his lifestyle, yet his condition is the result of a one-night-stand; a one-time indiscretion. Would they condemn him if he was a heterosexual man who had contracted this condition through a one-night stand with a woman? That is the core of the film. If nothing else, it was intended to make people question how we looked at AIDS at the time.
There’s also an evolution for Joseph Miller in the film. At first, he wants nothing to do with Andy. He takes the case, but still talks about being repulsed “by them”. He seems to still be the ambulance chaser in it for the almighty dollar. However, spending time with Andy, his partner Miguel (breakout performance by Antonio Banderas) and his family and friends causes Joe to grow as a human. Washington’s a natural in the role as he never quite gives up the persona of Joe Miller, “ambulance chaser”, while at the same time evolving into someone who’s perspective on the world around him has obviously changed at the end of the film.
There are other notable performances, specifically Jason Robards as the homophobic head of the law firm. He seems to vacillate from grouchy grandfather-like figure to mean, petty, and cunning. It’s all ignorance and fear fueling him which is ironic for someone as well-educated as even Andy admits he is. Mary Steenburgen is good as the lawyer representing Beckett’s old firm. Even she mutters at one point “I hate this case” leading the viewer to believe that she’s not entirely comfortable with the position she has to take, while all the time posturing innocent in front of the jury.
The soundtrack to the film is excellent. The opening sequence with Bruce Springsteen singing his Oscar-winning song is great. Just knowing he was contributing to this film gave it so much more credibility in my twenty-something eyes. The opera sequence with Maria Callas in singing is terrific, although this is the one place on the DVD that I noticed a few imperfections in the transfer. Hanks and Washington being shown in the shadows given off by the firelight isn’t as crisp as the rest of the picture, but it’s by no means a horrible print. There was also no bonus material on the disc- something sorely lacking in a film that was so important in its time.
AIDS has touched me over the years. One of my husband’s cousins died from it, although she’s not someone we really knew due to family strife. More to the point for me is my friend Keith. He’s an incredible and talented artist and someone I’m proud to have for a friend. He’s also one of the kindest people I know. He also is HIV-positive. I’ve always let him hold my kids without a thought, which was the first thing I thought of when Hanks’ character is holding his niece and giving her a bottle in the film. What’s even more incredible is that Keith has a series titled Bloodwork using his (treated) blood as the medium. My dream is to have one of his paintings in my house one day – choosing which one is the problem, and fitting it in with my science-fiction decor is the other.
So much has changed over the years, which is good. There are some great contrasts to the way society treats AIDS patients as well as gays in general – but we still have so far to go.