There are three filmmakers I associate with New York City: Woody Allen, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese.* Only one has seen fit to comment directly on September 11, 2001, mostly because he had started filming on location in NYC before the attacks, and forced himself to continue afterward. The product of that effort, Lee’s 2002 film The 25th Hour, may well be the most artistically valuable statement about that horrible day that the movies have yet produced.**
Spike Lee’s original intention was to adapt a novel by David Benioff (who also wrote the screenplay) about New York drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) on his last day in the city before being shipped off to prison for seven years. Monty flashes back to the happier times in his life before attending a going-away party with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and his two best friends (Barry Pepper and Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Everything was going according to plan on September 10, but two days later it was impossible for Lee to complete the film as originally intended.
Instead, the city’s suffering becomes a backdrop for the damage that Monty has done to himself and his friends. One particularly difficult discussion between Pepper and Hoffman is staged in front of an apartment window looking down on Ground Zero – even as they are arguing whether or not anything will ever be the same with their best friend, we are reminded that the world itself will never be the same. The going-away party is awkward and tentative, the sort of celebration people have when they are trying to lie to themselves about life returning to normal (or even being capable of returning to normal).
The most Lee-like scene in the film brings out the emotion at its most raw. Monty sees the phrase “Fuck you!” scrawled into a restroom mirror, and he launches into a fourth-wall-breaking, “No, fuck you” monologue aimed at the entire city (and Osama bin Laden), supported by a montage of all of the various New York stereotypes that he is kissing off. It reminded me of the montage in Do The Right Thing where various racial slurs are shouted at the camera, and in both scenes the rage that is seemingly being directed at the audience is actually the character’s rage at themselves and their own powerlessness. Monty doesn’t hate New York; like Lee, the city is a part of him. But anger is a part of the grieving process, and Monty’s anger has nowhere else to go.
A common mishap of movies made since the attacks is that they try to hard to address the issue of “why”: why they hate us, why they attacked, why the suicide-attack strategy was used and what that means. Invariably this is badly done, with ham-handed exposition or on-the-nose dialogue, so Lee does not go there overtly. You could read certain metaphors about blowback into the film if you wanted to, but I don’t want to go into those. The agony is so straightforward in this movie, it’s hard to imagine that Lee intended any kind of subtext.
If you look at Lee’s less impressive movies in the past, they generally fail for a couple reasons: either they are over-stuffed with too many side plots, or Lee is not able to keep his personal emotions out of the film. The 25th Hour has a slight touch of the first problem, because I felt Hoffman’s character to be in the film a bit too much. He’s fantastic, of course, as a sexually frustrated teacher who begins to lust after one of his students (Anna Paquin, on pace to still look 17 years old when she turns 40). But after awhile I just wanted to forget about him and find out what was up with Monty.
As for Lee occasionally being unable to keep his emotion out of his movies … well, that’s what lends The 25th Hour its incredible power. The real-life pain that each actor must have been feeling – especially Dawson, the only NYC native among them – lends incredible gravity to every scene. Jail doesn’t seem like that big a deal at first; movie characters get out of jail safely all the time. But the surrounding tragedy of the city itself delivers the message that Monty is about to to give up everything he has, and everything he thought he was going to have. Even if he makes it through intact, the happy days are over.
In the flashback scenes, not only is Monty a different person, but the entire mood seems more optimistic, as if the very idea that Monty can get punished seems to be on another planet. The extras seem happier, and even the lighting of the flashback scenes is brighter. In retrospect, it’s not so different from how America seemed on September 10, protected from attack from two oceans and our massive technological advantage. The movie is inflected with the shattering of that innocence, with the loss of a better way of life that we may never be able to get back.
Although I thought too much time was put into his story, Hoffman’s character does play an important role to that end. As seen in a flashback, Naturelle was just 18 at the time Monty met her, and he was an adult several years older. It’s portrayed as a lighthearted thing, a meet-cute for two lovers who were destined to be together. The Hoffman/Paquin story takes place in the present day, with she just one year younger than Naturelle was, and it is a dark reflection of the same relationship: their seduction is an uncomfortable thing, a violation that both the audience and the characters feel dirty for encouraging. It struck me as an audacious way to show that the attacks really did change everything.
I don’t want to spoil too much about the ending of this movie, but the final scene simply blew my mind. It’s based upon the idea that Monty deserves a chance for a better life, and that he’s done his time, paid his dues, whatever cliche that you prefer. Of course, the entire point is that he hasn’t done his time. He broke the law, he doesn’t dispute that, and turning away from that truth would just compound his problems. Maybe he will rebuild his life, just as they’re rebuilding downtown Manhattan, but the idea that he can somehow replace the pain of a prison punishment with something purer and happier is presented for what it is: a dream.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*In truth, Scorsese hasn’t made nearly as many “New York movies” as the other two men, but Taxi Driver and Goodfellas are just that great.
**I have not seen United 93, the only film well-received enough to challenge this statement.