Philadelphia (1993) is a film about AIDS. It's not a documentary on where the disease may have originated, or even a politically-fueled film that preaches a sermon from the rooftops. It's a look at one man who was discriminated against for having it, and his relationship with another man who can't stand people with it. The former is Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), an up-and-coming young lawyer for a major Philadelphia law firm. Beckett had kept his sexual preference secret for many years (in addition to eventually concealing the physical problems caused by the virus), for fear that the truth would kill his career.
Unfortunately, it did. But it shouldn't have.
In a way, the first few scenes in Philadelphia are the toughest to watch. Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" fades out, and we're introduced to a man who really excels at his job: among other things, he has the respect of his co-workers and superiors, and---in what is, unfortunately, a rare occasion in the business world---he actually likes what he does. The viewer is given glimpses of Beckett's failing health: a small lesion, a cough. When he's subsequently fired from his job (supposedly, for nearly botching a big account), we really feel for the guy. His health takes a major step down, and what's worse: he knows that he wasn't fired for "botching a big account". He was fired for having AIDS.
Ironically, he's now a lawyer that desperately needs legal representation. After being turned down by countless other law firms, Beckett finally seeks the help of competitor Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who is---to put it mildly---not very supportive of the gay community. The tension between the two, especially early on, creates such a distance that you'd never think they could see eye to eye. Thankfully, each man is backed by a supportive family: in Beckett's case, his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas) and his extended family; in Miller's case, his wife Lisa (Lisa Summerour). Through countless characters in the story, no matter how small a role, we see many different personalities and unique life situations. Gay bashers. Closet homosexuals. Support. Denial. Fear.
In every sense of the word, Philadelphia was a film that took guts to get made. Although several films about AIDS had been made prior to 1993, this was the first major Hollywood picture with the disease as its focal point. To say it was controversial would be putting it mildly, as supporters and opposers came from every angle. Gay. Straight. Religious. Many people didn't want to hear what Philadelphia had to say, but the good thing is...many people did. Although it's not a perfect film, it does a great job of getting a point across without, well, preaching from the rooftops. There is no perfect, happy ending where everyone holds hands and forgets their personal beliefs; after all, these are problems that will never disappear. Instead, it gives a name and face to a disease that was feared for many years (and rightfully so), and does so without leading the viewer around by the nose. There's not many films that can accomplish that, but Philadelphia treads the line carefully.
From the excellent directing by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) to the expert cinematography by Tak Fujimoto (a longtime collaborator with Demme) to the terrific score by Howard Shore (Se7en, The Lord of the Rings), Philadelphia is a film that really clicks in nearly every department. And of course, we can't forget the performances by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington (for which the former would receive an Academy Award for Best Actor). There's only a few things that don't work perfectly though, including a few scenes that could have been cut; one such scene is a "fly on the wall" conversation with the jury that seems too much like a public service announcement (ironically, one of the film's deleted scenes is a second conversation with the jury). Still, though, it's a successful film that has aged surprisingly well since 1993.
In fact, the only thing about the film that's diminished somewhat is the social impact that the AIDS virus had in years past. While the threat is far from over, at least many more people know about the disease now than they did in 1993. Even if the message is much more familiar, it's an important one. We know you can't get it by shaking hands or hugging, or even coughing. But it's still a disease that kills, and there's no cure yet. For that reason, Philadelphia still carries much of the weight that it did upon its initial release, and will likely continue to do so.
Luckily, Columbia/Tri-Star has really given this film a great treatment on DVD. Although the first release didn't have anything in the way of extras, it did have a good technical presentation. This new 2-disc "Anniversary Edition" (umm...happy 11th?) brings a nice mix of bonus features to the table, and seems to be nearly identical in the technical department. In any case, this is a solid release that will really please fans of the film. Let's see how this one stacks up, shall we?
The audio also sounds great, presented in English 5.0 Dolby Digital Surround (incidentally, there are also Dolby Surround tracks available in French, Spanish, and Japanese). While this is a dialogue driven movie, surrounds are put to mild use on occasion; particularly during busy, crowded scenes. The music also consistently sounds great, from the calm, enveloping melodies of "Streets of Philadelphia" to the film's closing credits. A true 5.1 track or DTS mix wouldn't have really added much, as the audio here does its job nicely without any major issues. A wealth of subtitles has also been provided, including English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Strangely enough, the second disc of bonus features contains only Spanish and Japanese subtitles.
The simple, elegant menus for this 2-disc set really sets the proper mood for the film, including small "highlight clips" and the film's score in the background. Menu navigation is smooth and simple; in fact, the only sub-menu that could have used some polishing was the Chapter Selection. The 125-minute film is divided into 28 chapters, and no layer change was detected during playback. Bonus features on the second disc are presented in fullscreen and non-anamorphic widescreen formats (with the exception of a few trailers). The packaging is adequate, if not a little generic overall: the cover design sports a text-heavy rehash of the original cover design with a new foil enhancement. This set is packaged in a standard slim double keepcase, and only a promotional insert is included.
As the original release was a bare-bones affair, I'm happy to report that this Anniversary Edition really improves things in the extras department. While some viewers may be disappointed that roughly half of the included content favors the social impact of the film over the actual filmmaking process, I think it balances the two quite nicely. On Disc One, we're treated to an all-new Audio Commentary with director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner. These two seem to be in good spirts from the very beginning, and their casual and relaxed manner makes for an entertaining listen. It was especially moving to hear the two discuss their memories of several cast and crew members that had passed away since 1993, from AIDS-related illnesses or otherwise. Overall, a great listen for fans of the film that doesn't disappoint, although there were several lengthy gaps of silence during this track. The only other disappointment with this commentary was the repetition of several facts during the second disc's documentary, but that's not a major issue. As a sidenote, it's also nice to see that several of the foreign language subtitle tracks were also available for this commentary as well.
Disc Two starts off with a series of six Deleted Scenes presented in fullscreen, roughly 15 minutes' worth in all. It's easy to see that Demme and company made the right choice in editing these scenes out, as they really didn't seem to contain the power of the film in all but a few minor instances. Although I'd have loved to hear another commentary track during these scenes, it's nice to have them in any condition. Next up is have a series of terrific documentaries, starting off with People Like Us: The Making of Philadelphia (58 minutes, 8 chapters). As some fans may know by now, "People Like Us" was one of the working titles of this film in the early stages, as this all-new documentary shows us the path from then until now. Several key news articles and 1980s-era promotional material are also shown (like the one seen above), and most of the cast and crew is on hand to discuss how the film impacted their lives from 1993 until now. As discussed in the commentary, a few members of the cast and crew were actually suffering from AIDS at the time of filming; including noted actor Ron Vawter, who passed away in 1994. In the documentary's fourth chapter, the remaining cast and crew pay their respects to Vawter and the rest of the victims. Overall, it's a fascinating and thorough look at the film's production and social impact, and one of the better documentaries I've seen lately.
The second documentary is perhaps the most valuable feature on this release, and takes a look at AIDS patients from a first-hand perspective. Entitled One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave, this 65-minute short film (shot by Demme's personal friend and AIDS victim, Juan Botas) documents the thoughts and feelings of those in the latter stages of the disease. Surprisingly, a number of the participants seem to be in high spirits; particularly, the resident "storyteller" Daniel Chapman (seen above, who also appears briefly in the film). I'll be completely honest, though, in admitting that this documentary will be tough for some viewers to watch. It's a little cynical in tone---"skeptical", as Demme mentions during the first documentary---and also contains a few mildly graphic scenes (hey, I'm not a big fan of needles). Still, it's an excellent film that really provides a unique look at a tough subject...kudos to Columbia/Tri-Star for including this. The only thing I don't like about it, though, was the overall presentation: the fast-forward, rewind, and even pause features seemed to be disabled, which proved to be more than a little frustrating.
Next up is the Courthouse Protest Footage and Interviews (6 minutes), an extended look at the mob scene outside the courtroom. Incidentally, eagle-eyed viewers will also notice the guy who shouts "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" (featured more prominently in this extended scene) is played by Jim Roche, the TV evangelist being broadcast outside Hannibal Lecter's cell in The Silence of the Lambs. Hey, I'm a nerd...what can I say? Overall, though, this inclusion seems awkwardly placed on its own, and would should have been included in the deleted scenes. In any case, we also get the excellent Music Video for Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia", as well as a brief 5-minute original Promotional Featurette (which is interesting in context, but doesn't add much).
Winding down, we're also treated to a nice little bit of (unintentional?) comedy relief with the Joe Miller TV Spot, a dead-on parody of personal injury law firm commercials. It's funny, though; in shortened form during the movie, it seems natural enough...but it plays much differently on its own. Lastly, we're given a series of Theatrical Trailers for Philadelphia and other films featuring Tom Hanks, including A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle. These were a fine batch of bonus features that fit the movie like a glove, with the audio commentary and documentaries being the major highlights. Overall, I couldn't ask for much more, except maybe an additional commentary with some of the cast.
Even if some of the social urgency has somewhat diminished since 1993, Philadelphia is still a fine film about a problem that still exists. The superb performances by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington are enough to make this a must-see, but the way it which the story is told really adds another layer. It doesn't beat its viewers over the head with a political agenda, and brings a human face to a disease that remained faceless to many people for so long. The DVD by Columbia/Tri-Star combines a great technical presentation with an excellent array of bonus features, making this an easy recommendation that's worth the double-dip. Overall, it's a solid 2-disc set that really deserves a spot in your collection, so make sure you pick this one up. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is mild-mannered art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.