Doing Justice

We live in a litigious world. Lawyers proliferate like locusts, except that the six-legged insects have a seventeen-year gestation period while the two-legged pests require only three. Yet no matter how many thousands of litigators law schools pump into the pipeline annually, the crime rate rises and the legal system sinks further into a quagmire. Too many bad guys get off, too many good guys get screwed, and too many lawyers get rich in the process. Widespread corruption is a given; cases like Operation Court Broom shock us not because we didn't think judges could be bought, but because we never realized how cheaply.

Everybody knows the game is rigged and the high rollers get preferential treatment. Yet as cynical as we've become about the real-life legal system, we still love those courtroom dramas on TV and at the movies. They've replaced westerns as our modern-day morality plays. From Inherit the Wind to My Cousin Vinny, the gavel is fast supplanting the pistol as our weapon of choice for cinematic dueling.

Oddly enough, even as lack of faith in the law and distrust of legal institutions reach epidemic proportions, so does our appetite for fictitious courtroom melodrama continue to expand. Perhaps we still have more grudging faith in the old scales of justice than we care to admit. Or maybe it's like our attitude toward sports A everybody bitches about the referee, but the game goes on. No shortage of players or patrons.

Two of the better films released by major studios at the tail end of 1993, Universal's In the Name of the Father and TriStar's Philadelphia, involve contentious legal battles and reach their dramatic climax in courtrooms. Both films play by the rules of generic courtroom drama: Heroes and villains are clearly defined; unjustly persecuted good guys fight long odds, endure extreme emotional duress, and bear up like champs; overconfident bad guys scheme and lie and try not to gloat too profusely. In each film the bad guys make careless mistakes that undermine their cases, the hero's attorney risks invoking the judge's wrath by making an impassioned speech on behalf of his client, and the judge (who appears to favor the villain) cautions against future outbursts. In the end it's not about money won or time lost, it's about principle, justice, and that old Hollywood favorite, the indomitability of the human spirit.

It's no small irony that Philadelphia, a movie about prejudice and intolerance toward homosexuals, is set in the "City of Brotherly Love." Tom Hanks portrays Andrew Beckett, a hotshot attorney abruptly fired by his prestigious law firm. Jason Robards is Charles Wheeler, the firm's head and a rancorous old boy who swears he cut Beckett loose because the up-and-comer wasn't pulling his weight, not because Wheeler just happened to find out Beckett was gay and had AIDS. Beckett, of course, takes his former employer to court. In the old days they'd have faced off at high noon on Main Street.

That's it in a nutshell. They can him, he sues. Denzel Washington is the audience surrogate, Hanks's attorney. He's a sleazy, homophobic ambulance-chaser at first but (surprise!) becomes both brilliant and tolerant by the movie's end. He doesn't want to take the case when Beckett offers it to him initially (after being turned down by nine other lawyers), but then he sees Beckett being discriminated against and it strikes a responsive chord. Soon the plucky little team is taking on the city's most powerful law firm, which has all the time, money, and manpower in the world. Exchange the courtroom for a boxing ring and you've got another story of a lovable underdog facing long odds in the fight of his life. Maybe it's no coincidence that Rocky was filmed in Philadelphia as well.

Which is not to compare Hanks to Stallone. Much has been made of Hanks's bravery for putting his boy-next-door image on the line to portray a homosexual infected with AIDS, and he deserves kudos for taking the risk. But his Beckett is so likable, a man of such vulnerability, composure, and grace that he's one of the most sympathetic characters Hanks has ever played. Screenwriter Nyswaner and director Demme take great pains to make Andrew Beckett the most lovable, nonthreatening male lead this side of the dog in Beethoven. True, Hanks's character contracted AIDS from a quickie in an all-male porno movie house. But that was ten years ago; he didn't know the risks at the time and he's been faithful to his doting lover Miguel ever since. It's as if to atone for the transvestite psycho-killer character that so riled gay activists against his Silence of the Lambs, Demme airbrushed away Beckett's genitals. You see Hanks kissing babies at a family get-together, but you don't see him kissing Miguel. (Maybe Washington, who reportedly counseled Will Smith "don't be kissing no man" for the latter's role in Six Degrees of Separation, prevailed upon Hanks and Demme as well.)

For all that, it's still a well-told, moving story. Hanks and Washington earn their salaries; they both give solid, affecting performances. Mary Steenburgen is appropriately cold and tenacious as the law firm's counsel, Antonio Banderas injects as much sensuality into the thankless role of Miguel as Demme will allow him, and Jason Robards is, well, Jason Robards. There's no faulting the performances. And Demme's direction, while low-key, is suitably accomplished. The combination more than compensates for the script's faint-heartedness and predictability. It's good work all way around.

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