Directed by Jonathan Demme, a lawyer is fired by his law firm after they learn he has AIDS, and he sues them with the help of a black lawyer he once opposed in a case.
Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) says that limestone dust is messy but innocuous. Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) asks what he means by “innocuous,” and Andrew tells him the definition is “harmless.” Joe speaks to Judge Tate (Roberta Maxwell) about how people would feel about this construction going on while they are surrounded by this toxic dust. Andrew says that Kendall Construction builds neighborhoods, and to grant a restraining order against the construction will throw 753 Philadelphians out of work. He calls it a “nuisance suit” that is tearing apart their society. The judge tells them not to go off the deep end, and she rules that Wilson did not prove irreparable harm.
In the elevator Andrew and Joe are talking into electronic devices, and there is a man with his head in a cast and a crutch.
In a hospital Dr. Gillman (Karen Finley) tells Andrew that his blood work came back, and she will come back and talk to him.
Andrew returns to his law firm and is congratulated on the Kendall case. His secretary Shelby (Lisa Talerico) hands him a settlement agreement, and at 6:30 he tells her to go home. Andrew calls his mother Sarah Beckett (Joanne Woodward) and tells her that his blood work is excellent. He asks how she and dad are.
Andrew is still working on his computer at the office while eating Chinese food. A man tells him that Charles wants to talk to him upstairs. In that office Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) tells Andrew the suit he is interested in is an anti-trust case. Andrew says the more important legal principle involved is copyright infringement. Charles asks him which side he favors even though Charles has a friend, Bill Wright, on the side of Sander Systems. Andrew says he would like to see Highline win. He is asked why and says if Sander Systems wins, a young company would be destroyed. He says antitrust and copyright laws were enacted to protect such companies. Two other men enter the discussion, and Andrew says that Rodney Bailey does not know copyright law at all. Charles says that Highline agrees with him, and they have just hired their law firm. Andrew is glad and is told he has the job defending them. He thanks the partners and says what he will do. Walter Kenton (Robert Ridgely) asks Andrew about a bruise on his forehead, and he says he got it playing racket-ball. Andrew thanks Charles for his faith in him, and they hug. Charles tells him to go home or back to work, and they shake hands.
Nine days later Andrew is working at home and completes the Highline complaint and calls Shelby to have get Jamey working on it. He says he will be working at home. Chandra is applying make-up to his face, and he asks if it is too brown. He says he has called in sick for the past four days. Bruno hands him a paper, and he feels pain and limps to the bathroom. He can be heard crying, and Bruno asks if he is okay. Andrew says he needs to go to the hospital.
Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas) runs to the hospital, and inside he gives Andrew a hug. Andrew says Dr. Gillman took a day off, and he asks if his class is okay. Miguel feels his forehead and says that Andrew has a fever. Andrew says he almost did not make it to the bathroom, and his friend Miguel says he has nothing to be ashamed of. Andrew asks to talk to another doctor who says he wants to prep him for a colonoscopy. Dr. Klenstein asks about his friend, and Andrew says he is his partner. The doctor says they need to know if the K. S. is causing the diarrhea. Andrew says it could be a reaction to the AZT. The doctor gets upset with Miguel’s criticism and says he is not immediate family and could be removed from the hospital. Andrew says he is sorry, but Miguel says he is not. Andrew agrees to give him a specimen, and the doctor says he will arrange the lab work. Andrew says he needs to call his office. He uses a pay-phone, and Shelby tells him Jamey is upset about the Highline complaint. Jamey tells him they can’t find his revisions, and Andrew says he put it on his desk last night. Jamey says they can’t find it, and Andrew tells him to look on his hard drive. He warns Jamey that the statute of limitations will run out in 75 minutes. Jamey does not see it in the computer, and Andrew says he is on his way and hangs up. He tells himself that for every problem there is a solution.
A black woman gives birth to a baby, and the father Joe takes a photo. In the hall he orders wine for his wife Lisa (Lisa Summerour). He asks if anyone called and is told that Andrew Beckett did. He asks who that is. Later Joe is sleeping in the hospital bed with his wife who is awake and holds the baby.
In his office Joe talks to the client Finley and tells him he has a case. Finley leaves, and Joe tells Mr. Beckett to come in. Andrew has a short beard and is wearing a baseball cap, and he says it is good to see the counselor again. Joe remembers the case with “innocuous,” laughs, and shakes hands. Andrew says he has AIDS. They sit down, and Andrew congratulates Joe on his baby girl. Joe asks what he can do for him. Andrew says he was fired by his law firm, and he wants to sue them for wrongful termination. He is seeking representation. They said he misplaced an important complaint, and he asks Joe if he wants to hear his story. Joe asks him how many lawyers he called before he called him, and Andrew says nine. Andrew says that the night before the complaint was due he left a copy on his desk. It vanished from his desk and from his computer. Miraculously they found a copy at the last minute, and they got it to court on time. The next day they summoned him for a meeting with the partners.
Charles invites Andrew into the board room, and he says they are all his friends. Andrew apologizes again and says he is glad it was found. Kenton asks about next time, and Andrew says there won’t be a next time. Charles says something has come over him, and Kenton says he has an attitude problem. Charles agrees, and Andrew asks if he is being fired. Charles says his position is no longer secure, and it is not fair to keep him there when his prospects are limited. He does not want to rush him, but they have a committee meeting. Andrew asks why they gave him the Highline suit if he they had lost confidence in him. Another man says he almost lost the case for them.
Joe says that Andrew was concealing his illness, and Andrew says that is correct. Joe asks him to explain about his obligation to tell them about his illness. Andrew says he was doing his work well. Joe supposes that they tried to make him look incompetent, and Andrew agrees they sabotaged him. Joe says he does not buy it, and he does not see a case. Andrew insists he has a case and says Joe does not want it for personal reasons. Joe confirms that, and Andrew gets up to go. Joe says he is sorry about what has happened to him, and Andrew goes out. Joe tells his secretary Iris to find out if Armbruster can see him.
Andrew stands on the street and worries.
A black doctor tells Joe that AIDS can only be transmitted by the transmission of bodily fluids—blood, semen, and vaginal secretions. Joe says they are finding out new things, and he does not want to find out in six months it can be carried on your clothes. The doctor tells him that they are going to draw his blood. Joe laughs and goes out.
At home Joe’s wife Lisa says that he has a problem with gays and asks how many he knows. He asks how many she knows, and she mentions four people. He admits he is prejudiced against homosexuals. He kisses her and says he does not want to be in bed with anyone stronger than he is. He says a man understands how disgusting that is. She calls him the “caveman of the house,” and he tells his little girl to stay away from her Aunt Teresa. Lisa tells him not to say that to her. He says he is being honest with her. He asks if she would take a client if she did not want that person to touch her or breathe on her. She kisses him and says not if she was him.
Two weeks later Joe comes out of a delicatessen with a bag.
Joe is working in a law library while eating. A librarian brings a book to Andrew and tells him he is right that there is a section on HIV discrimination. Joe hears this and looks at Andrew. The librarian says they have a private research room, but Andrew says he is fine. The librarian asks if he would be more comfortable there. Andrew says no and asks if it would make the librarian more comfortable. Joe goes over to Andrew and asks how he is doing. The librarian says whatever and walks away. Another man gets up and leaves. Joe asks if he found a lawyer, and Andrew says he is a lawyer. He asks about Joe’s baby, and he says she is wonderful. Joe turns away but comes back and asks how the partners learned he had AIDS. Andrew says they saw a lesion on his forehead. Joe asks how they got from that to knowing that he had AIDS. Andrew says that Kenyon had worked with a woman who had lesions and AIDS. Joe asks if they fired her, and Andrew says no. Joe says then he has a relevant precedent. Andrew shows him the airline decision by the Supreme Court. Joe looks at the book and reads a 1973 law that bans discrimination against qualified people based on a disability. Andrew says that subsequent decisions ruled that AIDS is a handicap and is protected because of the social death that precedes the physical one. Joe reads that this is the essence of discrimination.
Six weeks later at a professional basketball game Charles is happy to meet Julius Irving in a private suite. Joe comes in and hands a summons to Charles Wheeler, and he shakes hands with Dr. J and gives him his card as the TV guy. In a hallway Charles tells three men that he wants to know everything about Andrew’s personal life. Bob Seidman (Ron Vawter) advises him to settle the suit, but Charles tells him that Andy brought AIDS into their office, their men’s room, and their family picnic. Bob asks them where their compassion is. Charles says they gave him Highline and that Andrew said nothing about his being able to handle the case. Charles says that Andrew is hauling him into court to call him a bigot. Another partner says Beckett will settle, and Bob warns that a jury might decide that he has a case. Charles says he was fired for incompetence, not because he had AIDS. They ask Bob if he knew he was sick, and he says not really.
Andrew in the snow is showing the house where he grew up for a video. He goes inside and introduces his sister and her daughter. Others have gathered, and Andrew kisses his mother. He says it is a great day and kisses other women. Later he dances with his mother, and they hug.
In his living-room Andrew is telling several people gathered that in the trial there will be things that are hard for them to hear about his personal life, and there will be publicity. He wants to know if that is okay with everybody. He is bottle-feeding a baby, and a woman offers to take her; but he says no. His two brothers says it does not matter, but his sister says she is worried about their parents because of the tough times ahead. His father says that he and Miguel have been handling this very well with great courage. He says they are all proud of him. His mother Sarah tells him to fight for his rights, and Andrew says he loves them.
Seven months later in the courtroom Joe tells the jury there will be no surprises. They will be presented with the facts as to why Andrew was fired. Joe says Andrew is a great lawyer; he kept the illness to himself; his employers discovered his illness is AIDS; and they panicked and tried to get the man with AIDS as far away as they could. Joe says their behavior may seem reasonable to them as it does to him; but by firing Andrew because he had AIDS, they broke the law.
Belinda Conine (Mary Steenburgen) tells the jury that Andrew’s job performance varied from competent to mediocre to “flagrantly incompetent.” She says he claims he is the victim of lies; but he was the one who lied to conceal his disease, and he was successful in keeping his employers from knowing about it until after they fired him. She says Andrew is dying, and he is angry because his reckless behavior is cutting short his life. In his anger he is lashing out to make someone else pay. Andrew looks back at Miguel and his mother.
Joe is questioning Mr. Laird (Roger Corman) about his deposition when he said he was delighted by the quality of Andrew’s work. Now he says his work was only satisfactory. Joe uses a food metaphor, and the objection is sustained. Joe gets Laird to admit that Andrew won their lawsuit for them.
Outside police keep demonstrators on both sides behind barriers and clear a path for Andrew as he leaves the building. Reporters are allowed to walk with him and question him, and he admits that he is gay. A woman asks Joe if he thinks that homosexuals are entitled to special treatment, and he refers to the constitutional traditions established in Philadelphia that all men are created equal. Mayor Edward Rendell (himself) says that if they found someone’s actions were discriminatory, they could no longer do business with the city. These reports are seen on television in a bar by Joe and others. Filko makes fun of Joe, who at first pretends he is looking for a man; but then he admits he does not like homosexuality, and he says a law has been broken. The bartender agrees that they make him sick too.
In court Joe asks Mrs. Benedict if she worked with Walter Kenton and if he knew that the lesions on her face were caused by AIDS. She says he definitely knew because she told all the partners. Joe asks how he treated her after he knew, and she says every time he saw her he had an “O God” expression on his face. A black lawyer for the defense asks her how she contracted HIV, and she says she got it from a blood transfusion after giving birth. She admits that it was something she was unable to avoid, but she does not consider herself different from anyone with the disease who wants to survive.
Joe asks Anthea Burton (Anna Deavere Smith) what else made her suspect that Andrew had AIDS. She says he was getting thinner, and he was getting tired sometimes, though he was working hard. She says she cannot believe that they are pretending that they did not notice anything. Ms. Conine objects, and the judge tells her to just answer the questions. Joe asks if she has ever felt discriminated against at that firm, and she says yes. He asks how, and she says that Charles Wheeler objected to her earrings and asked her to wear something less garish and “more American.” She said her earrings are African-American. Conine asks if she was recently promoted and asks her to explain why she was if there was discrimination. Burton says she is oversimplifying it.
Joe is buying diapers at a market, and a young black man asks him how his case is going, and he tells him the case is important. Joe gives him his card, and the young man asks him to have a drink with him. Joe asks if he thinks he is gay. The man tells him to take it as a compliment, and Joe angrily grabs his shirt and scolds him. They exchange insults as Joe leaves.
In court on day ten Miss O’Hara is testifying that Andrew was screaming at everyone. Then Jamey came in and said the complaint was in central files where closed cases are sent. Jamey ran over to court just in time, and Andrew kept saying he was sorry and that he did not understand this. She is crying, and Joe takes her a handkerchief. He asks if Andy was a good boss, and she says he was very sweet. He asks her to evaluate his work, and she asks how she was to know. The black attorney asks if Joe is on the record, and the judge tells him to return to his table. Joe asks her if she knows of any problem the senior partners had with Andrew’s work beside the missing file issue, and she says no.
Joe asks Jamey Collins if Andy misplaced files, and he says no. Joe asks if he thinks hiding a file would be a good way to make a lawyer look incompetent, and he says no. He says they have had people with many illnesses, and no one sand-bagged them. Jamey denies having anything to do with the file being misplaced. Joe asks if he is a homosexual and uses many slang terms. Ms. Conine objects, asks why counsel is attacking his own witness, and says his sexual orientation is irrelevant. The judge tells her to sit down, and he asks Joe to approach the bench. The judge asks him to share what is going in his head. Joe turns around and says everyone in the courtroom is thinking about homosexual behavior and wondering about people. He says the case is about the general public’s hatred and fear of homosexuals. The judge tells him to sit down. The judge says that justice is blind to such matters, but Joe says they don’t live in that courtroom. The judge sustains the objection.
Joe asks Kenton about his time in the Navy on ships without women. He asks if anyone had sexual behavior with other man. Kenton says there was one man who showed himself naked, and he says they put his head in a latrine to teach him a lesson. Joe asks if knows the difference between a bruise and a lesion, and he says he believed that Beckett was hit by a racket-ball. Joe asks if he avoided Mrs. Benedict, but Kenton says he felt compassion for people like her who contract AIDS through no fault of their own.
Andrew is being treated with AZT. Miguel says it is not going through because the vein is closed. Andrew says he has a lot of work to do and asks if they can skip his treatment tonight. Miguel says that stuff is saving his life and makes him close his book. He asks for some of Andrew’s time. Andrew says he is worried they don’t have much time left, but Miguel denies that. Andrew says he is going to start planning his memorial service. Miguel agrees he should think about it, but Andrew says no; he has a better idea.
At a costume party Andrew and Miguel are dressed as Navy officers. Joe says Andrew looks alive tonight, and he says he had a blood transfusion and feels great. Joe has papers on his coat and says he is a “lawsuit.” Andrew gets him some wine, and Joe says they have to get to the Q and A tonight. Five men sing “Mr. Sandman.” Andrew dances with Miguel who puts his head on his shoulder. Joe sees them and smiles.
In his apartment Andrew brings Joe coffee and congratulates him on his first gay party. Joe says he was taught that queers are weird, and all they want is to get in your pants. Andrew thanks him for sharing that. Joe suggests questions he will ask. Andrew asks him if he ever prays and what he prays for. Joe says he prays for his baby and his wife and for the Phillies. He asks him to describe the circumstances under which he joined the law firm. Andrew says he may not survive the trial, and he made provisions in his will for some charities. Andrew says Miguel will need a lawyer, and Joe says he knows someone. Andrew asks Joe if he likes this opera music. Andrew says Maria Callas is his favorite, and he turns it up and explains the story. Andrew’s arm is attached to a tube on a stand that he has to move with him. He talks about the music with great feeling and eyes closed. He translates the Italian saying the singer is identifying with God who came down to make Earth like heaven and with love. The music ends, and Joe says he has to go. Andrew says he will look over the Q & A, and Joe says he is ready and goes out. Outside the door he goes back and listens, starts to knock, but changes his mind and leaves.
Joe parks in front of his house and goes inside. He picks up his baby and says he loves her as the opera music is heard. He goes into his bedroom and cuddles with his wife on the bed.
In court Andrew takes the oath. Joe asks him to tell how he started working with the law firm. He says he was especially impressed by Charles Wheeler for his knowledge of the law and his ability to illuminate legal concepts with elegance and for his adventurous spirit. Joe asks if he ever told Charles he was gay, and he says he did not. He was going to, but at the racket club in the steam room men were telling jokes, and he heard him tell one about faggots faking an orgasm. Joe asks how he felt, and Andrew says he was relieved that he never told him. Joe asks if he is a good lawyer, and Andrew says he is an excellent lawyer. He says he loves the law because you get to be part of justice being done.
Ms. Conine asks Andrew if he took risks, and he admits he did. She asks if his doctor ever told him to avoid stress. He admits he did say that stress could affect his immune system. She asks if he was ever at a certain cinema, and he says he was there three times in his life. He admits they show gay and pornographic movies. Joe objects, and the judge lets her continue. She asks if men have sex with each other in that theater. She asks if he did that, and he admits he did once in 1984. She asks if he was aware that the fatal disease AIDS could be contracted by sexual activity. He says he had heard of a gay cancer, but he did not know how one got it. She asks if he needs a break, and he asks for some water. The judge orders water brought. She asks if he did everything he could to make sure they did not know he was a homosexual. He says no; he never lied about it. She asks if he concealed his sexuality, and he says he did in some circumstances. She asks if he spent his life in the art of deception. Joe objects, and she withdraws the question. She asks if he was living with Miguel in 1984 when he had the anonymous sexual encounter in the cinema. She asks if he could have infected him; he says yes but that Miguel is not infected. She asks if he concluded that when the partners learned he had lesions, they concluded he had AIDS, and they fired him. He says it was painful to do so, but it was the only conclusion he could come to. She asks if he has a lesion now, and he says he has one by his ear. She gets permission to approach the witness and uses a hand mirror to show him the lesion from three feet away and asks if he can see it. He says he had four lesions before, and they were bigger; but he does not see it now. She says no more questions, and the judge suggests a recess. Joe asks for five minutes and asks if he has any lesions on his body now that are like the lesions he had earlier. Ms. Conine objects, but the judge allows it and asks Andrew to remove his shirt. Andrew loosens his tie and unbuttons his shirt showing large lesions that everyone can see.
Charles Wheeler is sworn in. Ms. Conine asks if he knew that Andrew had AIDS when he fired him, and he says no. She asks if he fired him because he had AIDs, and he says no. She asks why he promoted Andrew and then eventually asked him to leave. He says Andy was a promising young attorney, and that was why they hired him and kept him on. He says they groomed him and gave him special treatment. They were hoping the promise would deliver, but he says they could not ignore the gap between the promise and the reality. She says no more questions, and Joe claps his hands. He asks if Charles is gay, and he says no. Joe asks if it is true that when he learned that Andrew is gay, it made him remember many things and made him think about himself. Charles says his client worked when he wanted to, and his work suffered in the long wrong. Joe asks who makes the rules, and Charles tells him to read his Bible. Andrew says excuse me as he stands up and then falls on the floor. Charles tells someone to send for a doctor, and some people come to Andrew; a woman asks for an ambulance.
In the hospital doctors are working on Andrew.
In court Andrew is not present. Joe asks Bob Seidman if he noticed any changes in Andrew’s appearance in his last year at the firm. He says that generally they were for the worse. He says he suspected that he had AIDS. Ms. Conine asks if he shared his suspicions with Mr. Wheeler or any other partner. He says he did not mention it to anyone and that he will always regret that he didn’t.
In the jury room the foreman asks about their giving him an important case as only a test to see if he could rise to the challenge. He asks would not people give it to their best lawyer.
In court all the jurors but one say they agree. The judge asks if they have awarded any damages. The foreman says they have awarded him $143,000 for back pay and lost benefits, $100,000 for mental anguish and humiliation, and for punitive damages $4,782,000. People applaud. The jury leaves, and the judge concludes the trial. Ms. Conine congratulates Joe and says she will see him at the appeal. A man hugs Joe who says he will see him at the hospital.
Joe arrives at the hospital, and people commend him. He brought some cheese and shows a bottle of wine to Andrew who is in bed with an oxygen mask. He removes the mask and asks Joe what you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean. Joe says he does not know, and Andrew says, “A good start.” They laugh. Andrew tells him he did excellent work, and he thanks him. Joe says it was great working with him. Joe helps him put the mask back on so that he can breathe all right. Joe says he is going and will see him later. Andrew thanks him for stopping by. Joe puts the bottle on the ice, hugs Andrew’s mother, and goes out. In the hall he sees Miguel and says he is a fighter. They hug.
Dr. Gillman examines Andrew.
In the elevator Joe tells the lawyer joke.
Andrew’s family and friends speak briefly to him one at a time. His mother calls him her angel. Miguel remains and closes the door. He kisses Andrew’s fingers. He helps him remove the mask, and Andrew says he is ready.
At home Joe and his wife are in bed and get a phone call for him.
People gather at Andrew’s apartment, and some light a candle. Joe is there with his wife and baby. Children watch a video of children playing.
This drama depicts the current discrimination against homosexuals with the deadly disease of AIDS by people who have a different sexual orientation and are afraid of the dreaded disease. An African-American, who can certainly understand a discrimination case, has difficulty because he does not like homosexuality. He becomes educated about the disease and realizes the justice of the case.