The movie stars a young Tom Hanks (36 at the time) and a young Denzel Washington (38 at the time). Hanks plays Andrew Beckett who has just been made a senior associate at Wyant, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow, and Brown, the law firm he works at in Philadelphia. (You probably could have guessed the city he lived and worked!) He's gay, but he keeps that information under wraps from his employers (and we'll see why much later in the film (spoiler alert: he works with a bunch of homophobic pricks)). Washington plays personal injury lawyer Joe Miller. We see one of his commercials played during the film and I couldn't help but think he should have used the tagline, "Better Know Joe!" But, of course, being a huge Breaking Bad fan, I couldn't help but think of Saul Goodman when I saw this. Joe's wife is about to have a baby girl.
Right after Andrew's been made a senior associate, one of the partners notices a lesion on his forehead and Andrew tells him he got whacked with a racketball. Nine days later he has more lesions on his face and by this time he has called in sick for four days and does his work from home. A friend of his (played by Chandra Wilson aka Dr. Bailey from Grey's Anatomy) puts make up on his lesions so they aren't as noticeable. The bronzer is called "Tahitan bronze" and Andrew says they're going to think he was on a cruise because he looks tan.
He gets a sharp pain in his stomach and tells his boyfriend, Miguel (Antonio Banderas), he needs to go to thehospital. It is there that he sees the TV commercial with Joe Miller. Long story short, while working from home, Andrew has been working on a super important file, but somehow it didn't get filed until the very last minute and he ends up being fired because of this. Or at least that's what the partners tell him why he's being let go, but Andrew believes he's being fired because they know he has AIDS.
Andrew tells Joe he's been fired by his law firm and he plans on bringing a "wrongful termination suit against Charles Wheeler and his partners." He tells Joe they told him he was fired for misplacing an important complaint, but his story is that he worked on it and left a copy of it on his desk, but the next day it had vanished and there wasn't even a hard copy. All traces of it were gone from his computer, but at the last minute it was miraculously found. (Hmm, how convienent. Sounds like a conspiracy theorist would have fun with this one). As he's telling Joe the story of how he was summoned into the partners' office, we see a scene of Andrew in the conference room where he's apologizing to the older gentlemen and tells them thank god it was found. One of the lawyers say, "This time. What about next time?" Andrew is then told that some people thinks he has an "attitude problem", which to me, seems to come out of no where because we never see any examples of this, and that some kind of "fogginess" has come over him. He is also told, "Your place in the future of this firm is no longer secure. We feel it isn't fair to keep you here when your prospects are limited." Andrew asks if they thought he had an attitude problem, why did they give him that important case in the first place? Heh, that does sound like something somebody with an attitude would say! Also, I'm guessing because they didn't know he had AIDS at that time! Joe confirms with him that he was concealing his illness from the partners. He asks Andrew, "Didn't you have an obligation to tell your employer you had this dreaded, deadly, infectious disease? Tell us how you really feel, Joe! Andrew replies, "That's not the point. From the day they hired me, to the day I was fired, I served my clients consistently, thoroughly, with absolute excellence. If they hadn't fired me, that's what I'd be doing today." Joe starts to see the light here: "And they don't want to fire you for having AIDS. So in spite of your brilliance, they make you look incompetent, thus the mysterious files." Andrew confirms this and says he was sabotaged. Joe asks him how many lawyers he went to before he came to him and Andrew tells him nine. It looks like Andrew will have to find an eleventh because Joe says he doesn't see a case here. This is absolutely insane that Joe says this because before Andrew arrived, we saw Joe talking to a guy who wants to sue the city for negligence because he fell into a hole that was clearly marked and blocked off. He asks Joe if he has a case and Joe says he does and takes the case! So you know he is lyyyyying!
Of course, it's clear why Joe doesn't want the case and even Andrew sees this. He tells Joe, "I have a case. If you don't want it for personal reasons.." and Joe confirms this is true and says he doesn't want the case. Andrew thanks him and leaves and that's that. At least for now.
So, seeing as how Joe reacted during this whole scene, it's pretty obvious he's freaked out about the whole AIDS thing. We even see him visiting his doctor soon after and his doctor assures him he can't contract the disease just because somebody who has it was in his officer and touched some of his stuff. Now I don't remember how well people knew about this disease in the early '90s, but I thought it was a pretty well known fact that HIV can only be transmitted through bodily functions.
Joe is blatantly homophobic, and yeah, it's not a great look. Obviously, this is 1993, which, sadly, explains a lot. We get this scene where Joe is telling his wife he doesn't like gay people and why he doesn't like them (although I get the sense he has more of a problem with gay men than women). His wife asks him if he even knows any gay people and he says no and asks her if she does and she ticks off a bunch of people she knows who are gay. This includes her big-busted aunt and Joe seems very disappointed about this which is super weird because she's his aunt. Yes, it is through marriage, but why is he so disappointed that his wife's aunt is gay? He shouldn't care because he's MARRIED so he shouldn't be looking at other women anyway, especially to his own wife's aunt!
The movie wants us to know how much time has passed from one signifiant scene to the other because they will show this by putting text at the bottom of the screen. We see that since Andrew has come to see Joe at his office, two weeks have passed and its around Christmas time. Joe is studying at the library and he sees Andrew a few tables down with a book that has "a section on HIV related discrimination." He sees and overhears a librarian tell Andrew that they have a private research room available, obviously trying to get him out of view of other patrons, but Andrew tells him he's fine where he is. The librarian still can't let it go and asks him if he would be more comfortable in a research room and Andrew claps back with, "No, would it make you more comfortable?" Ooh, snap!
Joe reads from the tome: "The Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against otherwise qualified handicapped persons who are able to perform the duties required by their employment...AIDS is protected as a handicap under law, not only because of the physical libations it imposes, but because the prejudice surrounding AIDS exacts a social death which precedes the actual physical one."
Six weeks later we see the Wyant, Wheeler lawyers in a box seat at a basketball game when Joe comes in with an envelop and tells one of the lawyers, Kenton, "Summons for you." Before he leaves, he tells the lawyer to read it and he'll see him in court. Kenton tells the others he wants to know everything about Andrew's personal life - Does he go to gay bars often? Do he go to other "homosexual facilities?" What "deviant groups or organizations does he secretly belong to?" They are out for blood and they plan to get it. Bob, another lawyer, has another idea. He wants to make a "fair settlement offer and put this whole tragic business behind [them]." Kenton has the same mindset as Joe because he grabs Bob by the shoulders and exclaims, "Andy brought AIDS into our office, into our men's room! He brought it to the annual family picnic!" Another lawyer says THEY should be suing HIM. Bob just asks where their compassion is. I guess they had to make one of the lawyers have a bit of humanity so they didn't all come off as scum-sucking lawyers. (They probably didn't want to offend the lawyers watching this movie!)
Another lawyer (can you tell I didn't bother to learn all their names? They're all old, white guys anyway, how can I tell the difference?) says he's looking for a "quick settlement," but Bob says a "jury might decide that he has a case." Kenton says Beckett was fired for incompetence, not because of his AIDS. He asks Bob if he knew he was sick and Bob replies, "Not really".
It's now Christmas and we meet Andrew's family. He has a sister, Jill, who is pregnant with her second child. He tells his family about what's going on and says there will be things said at the trial that will be hard for them to hear about him and his personal life. His dad tells him, "Andy, the way you've handled this whole thing, I don't believe there's anything anyone could say that make us feel anything but incredibly proud of you." His mom (played by Joanne Woodward; who is still alive at the age of 91 at the time I'm writing this) tells him, "I didn't raise my kids to sit at the back of the bus. You get in there and you fight for your rights, okay?" I'm glad Andrew's family is supportive of him since his former employees and his own lawyer, who is defending him, doesnt' like what he stands for.
Seven months later, Andrew has lost a significance amount of weight (another sign that Hanks would win the Oscar...they love it when actors go through physical transformations), his hair is thinner and looks gray. The trial has started by now and Joe tells the jury they're going to be "presented with a simple fact: Andrew Beckett was fired. You'll hear two explanations for why he was fired, ours and theirs." (He points to the prosecution) "It is up to you to sift through layer upon layer of truth until you determine for yourselves which version sounds the most true." He tells the jurors the Wyant, Wheeler parters broke the law when they fired Andrew for having AIDS.
Remember the woman named Melissa who Andrew told Joe about that worked with one of the partners at a firm in D.C. and she had lesions and everyone knew it was caused by AIDS, but she didn't get fired? Well, they get her to testify on the stand and she clarifies she told all the partners about it. Joe asked her how Walter Kenton treated her and she said everytime he'd come close to her, "he'd get this look on his face" and referred to it as the "Oh, God" expression. We learn that she got AIDS through a transfusion when she lost a lot of blood giving birth to her second child. To me, that is absolutely terrifying. You go to the hospital to have your baby, then come home with AIDS. Like, WTF? I hope she sued that hospital! So because she didn't get AIDS through sexual contact, she didn't get fired. It is interesting though since you'd think they'd be freaked out since they could still get it.
Even though Joe has taken on this case and is defending Andrew, he still shows his rampant homophobia by telling his friends who ask him why he took the case, "those people make me sick", but "the law is the law" and says the Constitution and Declaration of Independence said "All men are created equal", not "All straight are created equal." So good for him, I guess?
While Joe is at a drug store, picking up baby items, a clean cut young man comes up to Joe and tells him the case is very important and he's doing a fantastic job. He tells Joe he's a law student at Penn. Joe is very flattered by the compliment, but that quickly deflates when the young man admits he never picks up people in drug stores and Joe gets very defensive. Probably a little too defensive. He tells the guy he's not gay and assaults him by grabbing by him the collar and violently knocks some items off the shelf by doing that. Before he can get arrested for beating the guy up, he walks out of the store, calling him a derogatory name.
Meanwhile, in his personal life, Andrew tells Miguel that he's going to start planning his memorial service; that he's "going to start preparing for the inevitable."
When Andrew takes the stand, it's a couple days after Halloween (because we saw Joe and his wife attend a Halloween party hosted by Andy and Miguel (Joe wore a suit with papers stapled onto it and said he was a law suit...I always enjoy a clever, pun-ny costume)). The day before he takes the stand, Joe goes over some of the questions he'll be asked. He tells Andrew the first question he'll ask him will be, "Can you describe the circumstance in which you joined the firm?" Andrew asks him if he ever prays. Joe replies that's not the answer to the question, but yes, he does pray. Andrew asks him what he prays for. Joe tells him he prays his baby is healthy, that his wife made it through delivery, for the Phillies to win the pennant. He tries to get Andrew back on track with the question, but instead he tells Joe, "There's a possibility I won't be around to see the end of this trial. I've made some provisions in my will for some charities." He seems to keep avoiding getting prepared for the questioning and asks Joe if he likes opera, which he has playing. We get this scene where he's describing the music playing to Joe and he's intensely listening. The opera scene is a bit heavy-handed and maybe a taaaad bit overwrought, but probably another big reason why Hanks won the Oscar.
When Andrew takes the stand and Joe asks him the question that Andrew kept avoiding the night before, he answers, "Wyant, Wheeler aggressively recruited me. They were the most prestigious firm in Philadelphia, full of opportunity." He goes on to say he was impressed with the partners, particularly Charles Wheeler (played by Jason Robards): "He was the kind of lawyer I thought I wanted to be: possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the law, a razor-sharp, litigator, genuine leader, gifted at bringing out the very best in others", etc. etc. Joe asks him if he ever told Charles Wheeler he was gay and Andrew says he didn't. When Joe asks him, "Why not?", Andrew replies, "You don't bring your personal life into a law firm. You're not supposed to have a personal life, really." He says he planned to tell him eventually, but "something happened at the racquet club about three years ago."
As he describes what happened on the stand, we are shown a flashback of Andrew and the partners in a locker room at a country club. The partners start telling very derogatory jokes about women and gay guys. Andrew is sitting at the end, looking very uncomfortable while the others are laughing uproariously. He says he was relieved he never told them he was gay, which I totally don't blame him. Also, I don't think it's required you tell your place of work your sexual orientation. How does that affect your work, anyway?
Joe asks him if he's a good lawyer and Andrew says he is, that he loves the law and his favorite part of the law is, "Every now and again you get to be part of justice being done. That really is quite a thrill when that happens." Hmmm, whatever could he be talking about? When he says that, all the parters seem to know this case is over for them. When Belinda questions him, she asks if he takes risks and he says he takes "calculated risks" in his work. Belinda asks him if his doctor ever told him to reduce stress, "that long hours and stressful working conditions might damage the immune system and speed up [his] illness?" Andrew confirms this.
By this time, you can see Andrew is getting flushed and sweating and the camera is tilted as though he's not properly seeing things. Belinda asks him if he's ever been to the Stallion Showcase Cinema on 21st Street and he tells her he's been there three times in his life. She asks if they show "gay pornographic movies" there (yeah, I had a feeling that's what they show there!) Joe objects to this question, but Belinda says it's "vital to the issue of credibility."
We find out he had sex with a random dude named Robert one of those times he was in the theater. I don't know what's worse: doing it in a public place or doing it with a stranger. Actually, I think the latter is much worse, though I wouldn't recommend the former! But don't have sex with a stranger in a public place (even if it is dark!) Bleh! This happened in 1984 or 85 and is obviously the incident where he acquired AIDS. Belinda asks him if he was aware of AIDS back then and he says he was aware or something called "the gay plague" or "gay cancer", but "didn't know how you could get it or that it killed you."
Belinda asks him if he was living with Miguel when he had his "anonymous sexual encounter in the porn theater." Yes, but says Miguel was not infected, although he could have. I guess it is implied that he uses protection when he's with Miguel, but obviously didn't when he had his tryst in the theater.
Belinda asks Andrew if he has any lesions on his face and he says he has one by his ear. She holds up a hand
Joe grabs the mirror and asks Andrew if he has any lesions on any part of his body at the this time that resembled the lesions he had on his face when he was fired. Andrew says he does on his torso. He unbuttons his shirt revealing more prominent ones. I mean, Joe totally schooled Belinda on this. You would think the prosecution would know better.
Wheeler takes the stand and when asked by Belinda, tells her he did not know Andrew had AIDS and that he did not fire Andrew because he had AIDS. She asks him why he promoted him, only to fire him so soon afterwards. He's sort of saved from giving an explanation when Andrew collapses and has trouble breathing and is gasping for air. He it taken to the hospital with his family and Miguel. The trial still goes on with Joe questioning Bob. If you remember, he is the partner who had some ounce of compassion for Andrew. Joe asks him if he notice "any changes whatsoever in Andrew's appearance over the course of the year leading up to his termination?" When Bob says he did and Joe asks him what he thinks the cause was in the changes in his appearance, Bob says he "suspected Andy had AIDS", but didn't share that with anyone else.
We see the jurors deliberating. The head juror reiterates that the prosecution said Andrew was just a mediocre lawyer and the fact that they gave him "the most important lawsuit they ever had for one of two of their most important clients" doesn't prove anything because it was "just a test." He gives an example: "Say I've got to send a pilot into enemy territory, and he's gonna be flying a plane that cost $350 million. Who am I gonna put in that plane? Some rookie who can't cut the grade because I wanna see if he can rise to the challenge? Or am I gonna give the assignment to my best pilot, my sharpest, my most experienced, my top gun, the very best I've got?" Well, when you put it that way. He says he doesn't understand it and would somebody please explain it to him like he's a six year old. Everyone laughs, since it's a nice call back to Joe who would always ask people to explain something to him like he's a [insert low number here] year-old."
Three days later, the verdict comes in We see the jurors saying " I agree" to the judge, except for one who says, "I disagree." Don't they all have to agree on the verdict? I've seen Twelve Angry Men! Well, I have to remind myself what I know about the law is from what I learned from watching Legally Blonde and The Practice. And that one season of Law & Order.
After Joe leaves, we see all of Andrew's family members saying good night to him, but really they're saying good-bye as most of them are crying and this is just more than a simple good-night for them. (I hope I'm not spoiling anything, but surely you can't be too surprised that he dies!)
Miguel is the last one to talk to him and Andy tells him he's ready. In the middle of the night, Miguel calls Joe to tell him that Andy has passed. At a memorial they have for him, home videos of him as a young boy are played. When I watched this first time, I may or may not have had tears streaming down my face!
And to bring this review back full circle, I do love the opening credits of this movie where you hear the Bruce Springsteen song and see not only the touristy and historical areas of Philadelphia, but also the real and gritty areas too: