Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is an American journalist who has relocated to San Juan, Puerto Rico as a freelance writer in the 1950s. He’s hired by a not-so-great American newspaper to write the daily horoscopes. At first he thinks it’s a joke, but alas, it is not.
As the film unfolds, there’s a tension in the air, and I don’t mean the rum-aroma air that almost seeps through the screen. There is a tension existing inside Paul Kemp. As he sits at Al’s bar with Chenault (Amber Heard) he tells her, “I don’t know how to write like me.” From the beginning of the film, we see this struggle. After witnessing his first Puerto Rican cock fight, Paul wanders off with a camera. He snaps some pictures of the local children in a trash dump. He then writes a story about the children eating in the dump. He wants to draw the attention of the reader to this great injustice. It’s rejected by the editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). “Nothing will change,” Lotterman reasons. “You underestimate me,” Kemp replies.
In the 1980s, AIDS emerged as the leading killer of young adults. By the mid-1980s, it was the leading cause of death in men ages 25-44. In 1990, over 100,000 deaths were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Today we know that AIDS cannot be transmitted by a handshake or a hug, or by breathing the same air as someone who is HIV positive. But in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, those things were not known. When someone came into contact with AIDS or HIV, they were cautious, as if they were in a leper colony. This is why Philadelphia is so important. A decade after the disease was identified, Hollywood took a risk in making a big-budget film about the disease.
It is the story of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) who is a rising lawyer in a major and high-profile law firm. The audience is given the privilege of knowing that Beckett is being treated for AIDS. The law firm, however, does not know. The senior partner of the law firm gives Beckett a case that involves the firm’s most important client.