The Silence of the Lambs

Given that the AIDS epidemic has been a matter of public record for a decade, it's sobering to think that a film like Philadelphia is only now being made. Made extremely well by that extremely fine director Jonathan Demme and equally fine actors Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington (among others), Philadelphia is nevertheless an artful propaganda piece, rather than a work of art. It deals in clear-cut rights and wrongs, never attempting to blur the edges. The film contains so few suprises -- none, I believe -- that you'd expect it to turn dull. It's a tribute to Demme, Hanks, Washington et al. that the film remains consistently engaging.

Andrew Beckett (Hanks) is a rising star at a high-powered Philadelphia law firm headed by Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards). One night, as Beckett works into the wee hours on an important case, he is summoned to Wheeler's office. It's the kind of ominous beckoning that could spell trouble -- "the boss wants to see you right away" -- but instead Beckett learns that Wheeler is giving him a particularly important and sensitive case, and a promotion to boot. Wheeler seems to see something of himself in his young star, and from inside Wheeler's plush office we get the sense that Beckett is being fully embraced into the powerful men's club. But just as he's getting that first foot through the door, it slams shut.

The film has scarcely told us Beckett is gay -- Hanks's performance is happily subtle -- before one of the firm's partners asks him about the violent red lesion just below his scalp, a Kaposi's sarcoma. In the film's one moment of moral ambiguity Beckett lies, saying it's a bruise he picked up during a manly game of racquetball. Should he have admitted he had AIDS? The film later excuses Beckett on the grounds that the homophobic partners would have immediately kicked him out of the firm, and we don't doubt that this is so.

In fact, it's not long before they do run him off. Beckett gets a second summons, only this time he's told that it's because of his "attitude problem." The partner knows a racquetball injury when he sees one.

Beckett's next appearance is a bit of a shock. He's begun to waste away. He's out to sue his old firm for wrongfully firing him, but, for obvious reasons, he can't find a lawyer who will take his case. He's reduced to going to a personal-injury lawyer, Joe Miller (Washington), the kind who runs tacky TV commercials. Miller and Beckett went to law school together, and Miller is at first happy but perplexed to see Beckett. Miller is an old-fashioned guy. When he learns that Beckett has AIDS, Miller looks like he's tempted to jump out his office window and run away. You can be pretty sure he has his office disinfected after Beckett leaves, doubly sure that he says no to the case, and triply sure he will ultimately change his mind.

Miller is the stand-in for the audience here. He's the one who has to progress from blind fear of homosexuals to acceptance. Miller never quite reaches comfort -- if he did, the film would be too triumphant.

To be sure, Miller is won over to Beckett's side by a combination of shame -- he's a bigot who needs only a little exposure to the other side in order to change -- and admiration of Beckett, who is reduced to handling his own defense.

With Miller's entry, the film also becomes a David and Goliath story, as the disreputable personal-injury man battles the big firm. But again, the quality of the performances, and Hollywood's decision to finally look AIDS in the face, keep the story fresh and engaging, if not exactly challenging. In fact, as a courtroom drama, the movie is rather thin, relying more on pathos than suspense.

But Philadelphia is challenging as a social document rather than as a work of art. I guess we have to take one step at a time. This film should serve to remind us how slowly we're moving.

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