by Ryland Walker Knight
"Champagne for my real friends. And real pain for my cham friends."
In the five years since the World Trade Center attack only one film has captured the immediate feeling of New York City in the wake of September 11th. Throughout Spike Lee's 25TH HOUR you can sense the loss, confusion, anger and weariness of a city. The film follows Monty Brogan (a resigned Edward Norton) on his last day before heading upriver to serve seven years for dealing heroin and in that span we see not just his life recoiling, burning, but his hometown as well.
After a prologue set sometime in the past wherein Monty saves a battered mutt (because the dog's "still got some fight in him"), Lee rolls his opening credits over a montage of the floodlights the city erected as temporary memorium to bring us current. It says there once was unabashed optimism. An optimism that could get you hurt, true, as Monty is bitten on the neck by the dog, but also an optimism and confidence nobody owned after the towers fell.
At the time of its release, Lee's film was criticized--like many of his films--for being heavy handed and meandering. Manohla Dargis, of the LA Times, said it was a film with a split personality that could not cohere. Richard Corliss, of Time Magazine, had the ever-insightful quip, "Pretty lethargic stuff." Most reviews were middling except for a few raves (one notably from the SF Chronicle's Mick LaSalle) and there was little to no advertising prior to its opening so, unfortunately, it debuted quietly and left theatres quieter still. There was no PR hubub leading up to it like this year's lauded UNITED 93 or Oliver Stone's event WORLD TRADE CENTER. It remains slightly to the side, rarely remembered. And if it is brought up, people seem to forget it was a Spike Lee joint. Earlier this year, none of the studio-sanctioned press about Lee's slick INSIDE MAN mentioned 25TH HOUR among Lee's previous successes, relegating it to the "misfire" category along with another underrated (if uneven) entry in his back catalogue, BAMBOOZLED. The only review I found of INSIDE MAN to mention 25TH HOUR comes from one of my favorite critics that few film fans read, yet desperately should, Walter Chaw:
You make mistakes as a film critic sometimes and, unlike a lot of professions, when you flub, you do it for the record. I underestimated Spike Lee's 25th Hour badly upon its release a few years ago, misunderstanding it, fearing it, seeing it as a mediocre film when, in fact, subsequent viewings have revealed it as possibly Lee's tonal masterpiece. [read the whole review here]
That tone is on full display in the first of two minor masterpieces within the film, Monty's bathroom soliloquy; which harks back to the insult slinging of DO THE RIGHT THING. In this film, though, it's just Monty spewing Fuck You's to his entire city, his entire world--the world he is no longer a part of. This monologue is at the heart of Lee's metaphor for his beloved hometown: it raises the connection from superficiality to formal stroke of genius.
The film is based on David Benioff's novel of the same name and apparently the writer molded his screenplay close to his own source. He keeps the best elements, including another monologue, this time from Monty's father, James, played beautifully by Brian Cox. James is driving Monty upstate to prison and at the George Washington Bridge he offers to take a left, go west, in a marvelous ending that risks everything and jumps over that line into the divine. Few films as dire and bleak as this can inspire such patriotism. But that's what we all felt that fall of 2001. It's just unfortunate that was exploited so expertly by our leaders for false goals and gains.
Spike Lee has a reputation as a rambunctious sensationalist, a reputation he does nothing to deny. The next film he made, from a screenplay he wrote, had so many ideas there were about four different films at play within SHE HATE ME. At the heart of the film there was an angry man railing against Enron's thievery but, for what reason I don't know, he covered it up with a sex farce, an unconvincing mob yarn and one hell of a male fantasy threeway romance. Luckily with 25TH HOUR he had great source material adapted by its own author and plenty of focused ire to pour into that story. I was glad to see him working at the top of his game with THE INSIDER and look forward to finally watching his Katrina doc when I get the time. He may have built a career out of copying his mentor, Martin Scorsese, but his stamp is clear and never been stronger than in 25TH HOUR.
[I'd been planning on writing something like a reflective review of Mr Lee's film for a couple days but Mick LaSalle already beat me to it and did a pretty durned good job already. You can read his eloquent, concise and informative caption here and his original review from the film's release here. For an interview with Walter Chaw, click on over to The House Next Door's tête-à-tête. Also, I couldn't not put up a picture of the delicious Rosario Dawson (as Monty's girlfriend Naturelle Rivera) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman & Barry Pepper (as longtime friends Jacob and Frank) so here it is at the bottom.]
02002: 135 minutes: dir. Spike Lee: written by David Benioff, from his novel