So, since Netflix’s rights to having the film Philadelphia are expiring on the first of the month, I finally, after years of curiosity, have watched the movie. Going in, I really didn’t expect much. Courtroom films are difficult to produce effectively in the first place, and, well, to be honest, entertainment about AIDS and homosexuality created in the 90’s didn’t always try the hardest.
For instance, the musical RENT. Now, I know I’ll get flamed for this, but I think it sucks. I can see how, when originally released, it was viewed as something special. The creators were focusing on people and lifestyles that you just never really saw in entertainment of the time. The music’s pretty darn catchy, which definitely helps. But the story itself, well, it falls flat, very flat.
So, as I began watching Philadelphia, I had some reservations, expecting another 90’s film planning to coast by on the fact that they had a neglected subject matter on their hands. How silly I was. I mean, first of all, you’ve got Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. These two actors alone can make many incredibly boring subjects interesting. Together, you should expect something pretty darn captivating. Throw in Antonio Banderas as a side character (uncharacteristically toned done and touching) and you’ve got the makings for a worthwhile flick.
But this movie doesn’t coast on those easy wins. Instead, it’s a movie which is unwilling to just give a glimpse into the subject, it’s a film that really attempts to capture the essence of the situation these characters are placed in. We don’t see two polarized sides fighting against each other in a stereotypical fashion. Instead, we see subtle hints of uncertainty. We see Denzel as a lawyer who really doesn’t know that he wants to be on the side he’s on. We see Tom Hanks as a guy who’s secure in his lifestyle choice, but struggling to understand where he fits in the world. We see the defendants in the trial not as much as evil villains, but people caught up in the whirlwind of uncertainty regarding homosexuality and AIDS. Sure, they were not blameless in their acts, but they were, in many ways, unwitting attackers.
There’s so much subtext going on as these stories are being told, so many items shaping the lives of all the people involved in this trial that there are times, although few, in which the conversation of homosexuality and AIDS does not appear to be the important one. And it’s with those times that you can see why this film was capable of treating the subject appropriately. It became a conversation about people. This becomes especially apparent with Denzel’s character through the movie. He never appears to be completely over his distaste for the homosexual lifestyle, but he accepts them for who they are. He’s a person, not a stereotype. He’s the everyman in this situation, a man taught all his life to believe one thing, but learns another viewpoint through his experience in the world. He’s not polarized, he’s willing to learn and to adapt his understanding of the world to how it really is, not how he has been told it is.
So, the real answer to how this movie deserves the recognition it received, even now that we are past it being such a taboo subject, is that it created believable and relatable characters who actually grow through the story. Which brings us all the way back to writing 101 (an issue that still seems to be heavily debated among the literary agents I research). Well-written characters can make up for a whole lot of mistakes in writing.
Whereas well written pieces of entertainment can fall flat on its face if it doesn’t have a great character. Avatar, I believe, is a great example, where you have a beautiful world being created, a pretty solid idea for a story line, but you really just don’t care for the dude you’re supposed to be relating to. Because of that, the rest of the film appears much more ridiculous than it should and it becomes a high-budget version of Fern Gulley or the Smurfs or whatever else.
Anyways. . . this is just my way of saying that Philadelphia is a much better film that I believe it should be. So, congrats to 1993 versions of Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and all others involved in the making of the film. It worked. Even if it took me almost 20 years to see it.