30 Movies in 30 Days: Philadelphia

Had I seen it before: No.

Year: 1993/1994 (IMDb lists a 1994 release date, but I know it was eligible for 1993 Oscars, so it depends on if we’re talking wide release or limited release)

Director: Jonathan Demme

Writer: Ron Nyswaner

Where you can stream it now: Netflix (leaving June 29)

What IMDb says: When a man with HIV is fired by his law firm because of his condition, he hires a homophobic small time lawyer as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit.

Why I picked it: I saw it was leaving Netflix soon.

What I liked: Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington are arguably the two best actors. Ever. Each brings the right amount of charisma and likability to their role while still coming off as flawed in the case of Washington and vulnerable in the case of Hanks. Each are fully realized, interesting characters that I want to know more about, and each changes enough over the course of the movie to maintain my interest.

It also did a great job of maintaining the humanity of the situation in spite of its lawsuit set up. I love a good courtroom drama. Watching people passionately argue about things they care about could entertain me forever. But I also know how the format can be limiting, forcing us to experience a story through the perspectives of third party lawyers, judges, and jurors rather than the characters who are actually living that story. That wasn’t a problem here. There was a really nice balance of scenes inside and outside the courtroom. Again, this helped create characters that felt like fully realized people rather than just a set of bullet points to argue, and it also meant that the courtroom scenes never felt like they were dragging on too long.

The story also does a really great job of quickly showing you what kind of character Andy is before they introduce his illness. It would super easy for a character like Andy to just be “the dude who has AIDS” and nothing else, and I suppose one could argue they cross that line at times, but I disagree. I loved getting to see him as a lawyer in action, and I loved seeing him in the library researching cases after he gets fired. We see firsthand that Andy’s not a man who goes down without a fight. And frankly, we need to believe that Andy is freaking amazing at his job for the rest of the story to work. It’s about a wrongful termination case, so we’re not going to be invested in his case if there’s even a possibility that Andy is just a bad lawyer. Within the first 20 minutes, I already knew enough about Andy that I was fully convinced he wouldn’t misplace an important piece of paperwork as his former boss claims. The fact that we also get to learn about his adversarial relationship with Joe Miller (Washington) in some of these earlier scenes, is the icing on this efficient exposition cake.

In an especially surprising twist, the beginning of this movie feels shocking similar to one of my earlier movies, which is The Mighty Ducks. Both center around big shot lawyers before the narratives take those characters in wildly different directions. Both movies waste no time in showing (not telling) you that these big shot lawyers are big shot lawyers. It goes to show that no matter what kind of movie you make, one of the first things on your to-do list should establishing what kind of character your protagonist is.

What I didn’t like: Joe’s change of heart feels a little too abrupt and I never 100% bought into it. He initially turns down the case, and he even goes to see a doctor because he’s afraid he could catch AIDS from Andy just because Andy touched some small items in his office. He says some hella homophobic things when he’s at home with his wife. While his wife is definitely more sympathetic to LGBTQ+ people, she doesn’t make any real attempt to change Joe’s mind, and I can’t see how this conversation would shift Miller’s attitudes overnight. Supposedly seeing a librarian discriminate against Andy at the library inspires Joe to change his mind, but then we skip straight from him offering some research tips to Andy to him serving up Andy’s former employers. Again, it just felt like a quick change given how extreme his anti-AIDS/anti-gay views were.

Will I watch it again: Maybe? It’s a famous enough movie that I’m glad I watched it. It’s an overall well-made movie, but not one I need to see over and over again.

Who would enjoy it?: It’s a must-see for courtroom drama fans!

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