Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a hotshot Philadelphia lawyer doing everything right – loving family and friends, great partner, about to be made a partner of the firm etc. – when he’s sacked in mysterious circumstances, probably because his secret HIV
infection has become known to his conservative superiors. Increasingly ill, Andrew looks around for a lawyer to take on his wrongful dismissal case, but no-one wants to know about it. Hanks visits ambulance-chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who he’s worked with in the past, but is initially rebuffed there as well. Miller is completely uncomfortable with gays, and is terrified of exposing himself, his wife and his newborn daughter to the plague, and, in any case, believes Andrew did have an obligation to disclose his infection, and that therefore there's no case. But Philadelphia is a very fast moving film, and a couple of scenes later, after Miller witnesses Andrew’s battle with discrimination and humiliation first hand, and learns that there is a Supreme Court precedent for unfair dismissal regarding AIDS
, he takes the case. The second half of the film is set in court, where we get several instructive monologues from Miller about homophobia, intolerance and so on, and the gripping decline of Andrew, who is dying rapidly – will he live to see the verdict?
Though ostensibly – and quite famously – the film about homosexuality and AIDS
, Philadelphia is a film about neither homosexuality nor AIDS
. Ten years after its release, the film’s cultural context and socio-political imperatives are all too clear – it’s firmly timestamped and a valuable pop-culture artefact, an interesting time capsule of ideas and images of early-nineties US metropolitan AIDS