Spike Lee‘s 2002 film 25th Hour, released in December of that year — 25 years ago this week — was about a very fascinating topic. Namely, that’s the film’s ostensible plot, the story of Monty (Edward Norton) on the final day before he’s set to go to prison, as he spends time with his girlfriend, his father, and his friends and tries to figure out who gave him up to the feds.
But the movie is also about something else, that wasn’t in the script: New York City in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Lee shot in the city, very soon after the attacks, and brought out the movie a little over a year after the Twin Towers fell.
25th Hour captured the feel of the immediate aftermath of the attacks better than any other film made around that time and added an additional poignancy to a movie that’s very much about New York City in general.
The film was written by David Benioff, the future co-creator of Game of Thrones, and it was based on his own novel. It was Lee’s 14th feature film, but just the third (after Girl 6 and Get on the Bus) that he didn’t write himself.
Norton’s Monty is having a seven-year prison sentence for selling drugs, and he’s facing the prospect of life without his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), who he suspects may have been the one to turn him in.
Monty’s angry, racist “Fuck you” monologue expands on Pino’s similar bit from Do the Right Thing, insulting every person, ethnic group, and institution in New York City, as well as his friends, family, and himself:
He also has two friends- Frank (Barry Pepper), a finance asshole who may as well be wearing a name tag that says “Eric Trump,” and Jake (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an English teacher who seems like a nice guy, except that it’s clear he wants to schtup one of his students (Anna Paquin).
Amongst Spike’s Best
All the performances are fantastic, all the way down to the former NFL player Tony Siragusa (who passed away earlier this year) who convincingly plays a Russian mobster.
The film is much more about character and atmosphere than plot, and Lee, always a very New York filmmaker, very much met the moment when it came to capturing the city’s post-9/11 feel.
25th Hour comes to a head with its legendary ending, one of the most moving sequences of Lee’s career. His saloon owner father (Brian Cox), instead of driving Monty to prison, lays out the scenario of Monty fleeing, heading West, and making a new life for himself in the heartland, as Terence Blanchard’s score plays. Alas, it proves only a fantasy.
25th Hour got good reviews, but it was nominated for no Oscars; this was during the long period when the Academy had little respect for Lee’s work. Its reputation has improved over time, and it’s generally considered the best film ever made about the aftermath of 9/11.
In the rankings of Lee’s films, I’d place 25th Hour below only Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.