"Champagne for my real friends. Real pain for my sham friends."—Monty Brogan (Edward Norton)
In 24 hours, convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) will deliver
himself to prison to serve a seven-year sentence. On this last day, he will try
to reconcile with his father (Brian Cox). He will have one last night of fun
with his best friends, the risk-taking bond trader Frank (Barry Pepper) and the
nervous and introverted Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He will try to learn if
his doting girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) betrayed him to the police.
The best thing that could have happened to Spike Lee's 25th Hour was September 11. Before New York was sent reeling from the atrocious attack on the World Trade Center, David Benioff's curious little novel was simply the story of a sinner trying to square things in his life before he must take his medicine. But as Lee's camera surveys the wreckage at Ground Zero, we realize that Monty Brogan's lament is about the city itself: a bitter place that has done so much wrong in the past, trying to find peace in the wake of an apocalypse.
If an apocalypse is about responsibility, the recognition of debt, it is also about the possibility of redemption. In 25th Hour, Spike Lee emphasizes the camaraderie of his characters by offering multiple shots every time two characters embrace during the film. It is as if, for all the sins they may have committed, the tragedy they have endured has harrowed them, offering an opportunity for an ethical breakthrough. Lee extends this notion to New York City in a frenzied rant by Monty during which he rails at everything he hates, from the Arab cab drivers to the b-ball players who selfishly dominate the court to every neighborhood and ethnicity—until Monty realizes that his anger can only be rightly directed at himself, at his own sins. Only then can he begin his long and painful path to redemption.
An apocalypse is also about closure, the possibility of judgment. Monty's journey, his attempt to wrap up the loose ends of his life before his incarceration, only ends up reminding him of his responsibilities. He cannot escape, but he is never a martyr. If Benioff's script toys with the notion of Monty as a Christ-figure, especially toward the film's end (he is "betrayed" by his friends when he demands they beat him so he will not be raped in prison, his father offers the "temptation" of an escape to a new life), we are also reminded that Monty is not just redeeming the sins of New York—he has most definitely sinned as well. He is fully human and would not have it any other way.
In this way, Lee seems to imply that September 11, if unprovoked, may have awakened New Yorkers to their own mortality, and to a new sense of responsibility for one another. It might sound like a rather moralistic point, like the final act of an after-school special. But 25th Hour is a far more sophisticated and rewarding film than that. And Spike Lee is a much better filmmaker. In his personal life, Lee is polemical, often self-righteous. But as I have pointed out in other reviews of his work, Spike Lee's films are conversations, attempts to explore ideas through characters. When we are engaged in the characters, the rhetorical points work (Do the Right Thing). When the characters do not click, the delicate structure of the conversation unravels (Girl 6).
Consider one of Lee's more successful efforts: Get on the Bus. Critics of Lee's work accuse him of forwarding some sort of "black power" agenda, as if this was the mid-'60s and he was Amiri Baraka or one of the Black Panthers. But Get on the Bus, in which a group of black men travel to Farrakhan's Million Man March, is less an opportunity to proselytize than to open up a discussion. Can this diverse group of men—liberal and conservative, straight and gay—consider themselves "united," as black culture is "supposed" to be, according to the modern myth of ethnic identity? And where do women fit into their world? Many of Lee's movies take this approach, that ethnic/cultural/gender identity is a complex field, and no single answer can satisfy all situations. In this way, his work is probably closer to contemporary feminist criticism (Donna Haraway, for instance) than traditional "black" cultural philosophy.
25th Hour expands the traditional ethnic (sometimes gender) conversation in Lee's filmmaking to embrace the identity of New York City. How are we members of this group, whether it is merely the city or the entire country? How do we retain our individual identities within this mass?
Monty Brogan is New York City personified: noble and rude, proud and uncertain about the future, hero and criminal. That's right: 25th Hour never apologizes for Monty's crimes, and neither does he. We are never meant to see him as a passive victim, an innocent punished for the sins of others. And perhaps, we are not meant to see New York City, post 9/11, in this light as well. Not that Monty's punishment is a form of justice. Indeed, the traditional legal system in Lee's films rarely connects to concepts of "justice" in any meaningful way: it is merely another form of power. In this light, New York City can also sin, but its punishment, represented by those sad slivers of light breaking forth from a ruined crater, squares no debt and offers no succor. The process of rebuilding will require a long struggle on the part of everyone involved. There will be no short cuts.
David Benioff shrewdly adapts his novel, written before the shattering events of September 11, 2001, to suit the times. It works beautifully, as Monty's crisis of faith ("where do I go from here?") becomes a microcosm for New York City and the nation ("where do we go from here?"). At stake is whether we put aside the tensions that drive the current of our multicultural nation and unite together—or whether our differences make us what we are. Does America rise above its enemies because of its unity or its diversity? This question is perfectly suited to Spike Lee.
As such, his direction here is confident (as opposed to egotistical, which he sometimes is when not behind the camera). 25th Hour sums up everything Spike Lee has been saying in his films for years, only now focused around the identity of the city itself—and the entire nation—and the people that live there.
Lee's narrative structures work best when restricted by an organic framework, either historical (Malcolm X, 4 Little Girls) or novelistic (Clockers). Without these, Lee's films sometimes lack narrative drive. You may recall in my review of Do the Right Thing that many of Lee's more overt "discussion films" are thinly structured to allow him to exploit his greatest strength as a screenwriter: the presentation of ideas. When Lee does have a strong narrative structure, as David Benioff's novel and screenplay provide in 25th Hour, his films feel more realistic than naturalistic and stylized. This does not mean that Lee eschews stylization entirely in the film (changes to film speed and cameras mounted on the actors are quite common in the film), but Benioff's story and characters keep the film anchored in a recognizable world.
Lee's confidant camera and Benioff's tight screenplay are pulled together by solid characters who appear more real than the caricatures that often populate Lee's discussion films. Edward Norton stepped up as the slightly seedy pragmatist Monty after producer Tobey Maguire went off to do that other New York movie about power and responsibility (you know, that spider-thingee you heard about). He never whitewashes Monty's rage or sense of failure, but we do sense that this is a man who recognizes his mistakes and can ultimately be redeemed. Rosario Dawson, as Monty's sharp-witted girlfriend, finally gets a part that can show off her potential: Naturelle can hold her own with any of these men. And as always, Brian Cox deftly underplays his small role as Monty's father, a retired fireman whose disappointment in his son is matched by his love and commitment.
But the story of Monty's final day of freedom might seem claustrophobic in its scope if we were not allowed into the lives of his best friends. Frank (Barry Pepper) is an arrogant, self-styled "master of the world" by day, gambling with money as a hotshot bond trader. His ego however is driven by an almost pathological desire for success learned on the street: the same anger that led Monty to gamble with the law as a drug dealer. Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) came from a more privileged family and now feels uncertain about his success and popularity as a teacher. Tempted by an opportunistic student (Anna Paquin) who flirts for a better grade, Jacob mirrors Monty's anxiety about Naturelle, whether she wants the real man or just the money and power. The dialogues between Frank and Jacob provide Lee with his traditional "discussion" scenes, while Monty's tour of his New York haunts give the film a sociological perspective. Flashbacks fill continuity beyond the narrative's fairly tight temporal structure. Everything meshes well to give the film an elegant, balanced quality.
Disney's DVD release of 25th Hour is, as it should be, excellent. As I noted with other Spike Lee films, Lee's use of color saturation (over or under) and variable camera speed can be tough to capture correctly on DVD. Disney's anamorphic transfer does a fine job. Terence Blanchard's elegiac score shines on the 5.1 soundtrack. The extras on the disc (why is there no insert?) are respectable, but not exceptional. Spike Lee's commentary on the film is low-key, and like his previous efforts (on Bamboozled for instance), he focuses too much on minutiae, points out the obvious, and leaves a surprising amount of dead space. For a man with so much to say on most occasions, he comes to these commentary tracks pretty unprepared to fill the time. Screenwriter David Benioff suffers many of the same problems on his own commentary track, mostly comparing scenes in the film to their counterparts in his novel. These two tracks could have easily been blended. Perhaps Lee and Benioff could have shared a room and asked one another questions to drive some interesting conversation about the film's themes.
Disney also includes a 22 minute featurette ("Evolution of an American Filmmaker") that briefly traces Lee's brilliant film career in concise and informative fashion, then devotes some space to the making of 25th Hour. Six deleted scenes taken from a workprint and extended footage of workers at Ground Zero round out the extras.
25th Hour is easily Spike Lee's most satisfying film since Do the Right Thing and perhaps the most mature of his career. Every element—story, direction, performance, theme—balances. Lee has always been one of America's best and most challenging filmmakers, but often his films feel more ambitious than complete. 25th Hour gets it all right. And the film's historical relevance as a chronicle of New York culture in the aftermath of the apocalypse of 9/11 is never a gimmick, but an almost perfect fusion of life and art. Woefully overlooked on its theatrical release, 25th Hour is easily one of the best films of 2002.
Monty Brogan has been sentenced by the State of New York to 7 years in prison. This court upholds that verdict, but releases Spike Lee and his collaborators on this film for their excellent work.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Commentary by Spike Lee
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