Directed by Jonathan Demme
Where to begin with this film? In short, it was nothing like I expected. I think it’s very likely that had this film been made more recently, it would be a very different piece of cinema. I wanted to like this film, truly. I believe that it had the absolute best intentions at heart, but I can’t shake the feeling that it does as much damage to the issue of homosexuality in America, as it does good.
The real problem stems from Denzel Washington’s character, Joe Miller. (Though it must be said that Denzel nonetheless, gives an awesome performance as always.) He’s a bigot when it comes to homosexual men, yet still he chooses to represent Tom Hank’s character, Andy, as his legal representation. No doubt, this was a choice added to develop more emotional resonance to the events that unfold. I’m sure Denzel’s character was supposed to act as a sort of surrogate for American society, afraid of something they do not understand, but by the end of the film changed for the better. The problem is, this change never really happens. As the films stands, Joe Miller hates gay people all the way up until about 2/3rd’s of the way through the film. And even then, at the end of the film, the audience is never given any sign that his attitude towards homosexuality has really changed. True, he comes to care for Andy and Andy’s family, but there is never a moment where his character realizes how he has viewed gay people before was wrong. There is never a moment of real catharsis for Joe, and if there is, it’s so subtle that it might as well not count. (I suppose that we could see his removing of Andy’s oxygen mask without being afraid of contracting AIDS as “improvement”… but as far as I’m concerned, all Joe has learned is something biological; you can’t catch AIDS like a common cold. He is still far away from understanding that his conception of tolerance needs to change.) I am far from a believer that films need to preach their message, but in a film with a character that so openly debases the gay population, a character that at the end we’re supposed to have seen as one of the heroes of the piece, a little more reason to believe him as such is needed. As it stands now, he helps Andy simply because the law was “broken”. This ends up sending a fairly horrible message, one that says bureaucratic legalities trump basic human rights. And I’m sorry, but that’s something I can just not approve of.
The other problem I have with this film is somewhat ironic in context of my previous issue. Namely that the film (especially the beginning) is highly over directed. Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film so needlessly over stylized before. I understand exactly what Demme was going for, putting HIV right in front of our faces, but the entire first half hour seems to consist solely of close-ups, most of which make the film comes across as slightly cartoonish and over-dramatic. Had Demme utilized these close-ups more sparingly, I believe that it would have made for a much more subtle and effective film, and one that still got his point across clearly. Had Demme paced himself and been a little less forth coming at the beginning and a little more at the end, maybe things would have worked out differently.
Other than these two (large) issues, “Philadelphia” was a good film. Tom Hanks gives a powerful performance, and the use of music is spot-on. The film often times works quite well, which makes it all the more demoralizing to be forced to think of what might have been.