In this week’s edition of CANON OF FILM, we take a look at one of Spike Lee‘s underrated masterpiece, ‘25th Hour‘. For the story behind the genesis of the Canon, you can click here.
’25th Hour‘ (2002)
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: David Benioff, based on his novel “The 25th Hour”
When Spike Lee’s ‘25th Hour,’ came out in 2002, it was ignored by most every award show, and made only a handful of top 10 lists. It was on my top ten list of that year, and I thought it was one of Lee’s absolute best; I’ve often called it his most underrated film. It’s a funny thing about movies, sometimes a film needs a certain amount of time to pass before people truly recognize its greatness, and time for those who were ahead of the curve to gloat a bit. Suddenly, at the end of the decade, the film found it’s way on a lot of critic’s Best of the Decade lists, including A.O. Scott of the New York Times, and Roger Ebert’s. I think now is the time to rank ‘25th Hour,’ not as an overlooked masterpiece, but as an absolute essential in the Spike Lee canon, on par with ‘Do the Right Thing,’ and ‘Malcolm X‘.
Lee is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. I once wrote about him, describing how he and his work are typically described as controversial and how it’s actually inaccurate to refer to him that way. He often presents controversial subject matter in his films, and he doesn’t hide it from the audience, but if anything, he presents his subjects realistically and somethings empathically. In fact, when I think of his films, it’s interesting how his filmmaking skill is simultaneously classic, yet with signature touches that are so subtle, most people don’t fully realize them. The famous shot he uses to make his characters seem to float above everyone else, the way he draws us in with idle conversation between side characters, as the action, or sometimes lack of action continues elsewhere, and then moving back and following his main characters through both their journeys through life and through their mind. I’ve even sat through bad films of his like ‘Miracle at St. Anna,’ and ‘Girl 6,’ with utter fascination, wondering what he’s going to show us next, and how exactly will he show us. This is even true for the stuff that he didn’t make.
Lee’s films aren’t about being controversial, they’re about people, which is what makes ‘25th Hour,‘ so great, it’s about the people in it. Specifically Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a drug dealer who’s been caught, clearly somebody ratted him out, and he has one day left to get his affairs in order before he spends the next seven years in prison. His girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) is widely suspected to be the one who turned him in, especially by one Russian mobster friend (Football star Tony Siragusa). He’s meeting his friends from high school later on that night. One’s a teacher at his former prep school, (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who’s run into an ethical dilemma with an extremely precocious student (Anna Paquin). His other friend is a Wall Street trader straight out of the Gordon Gekko playbook (Barry Pepper). He drinks Red Bull like its water, and he steadfastly refuses to leave his apartment which is located directly above Ground Zero. Lee altered from the original novel and with this film, he became the first major American filmmaker to set a movie in New York after 9/11. His famous opening sequence showing the two lights where the towers once stood is etched into my memory.
The film’s other famous sequence is the famous fuck monologue, where Monty’s in his father’s bar (Brian Cox), an old Irish fireman who’s still recovering from those who were lost, and in the bathroom mirror Monty tells literally everybody in New York to go fuck themselves, before finally turning onto himself. There’s an illusion of a happy ending, his father telling his son that they could just keep going instead driving him to jail, and start a new life. Many misperceive this as the actual ending, not realizing that the bridge they take leads them to Sing-Sing, but even if it wasn’t, the point of truth is that like New York City and America, 9/11 changes everything forever. Monty’s life as he knows it, is also over. There’s no telling what seven years in jail will do to him, but he won’t be the same person when he gets out, and the world he knew of friends and family will also not be the same. This sense of dread that will forever follow Montgomery Brogan is what the film is ultimately about. The fact that Lee would even dare, much less succeed at comparing and contracting this dread with a directly post 9/11 world, is what makes Lee a master filmmaker.