February 27, 2003

All Hope Abandon?

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Like everyone else, I thought it was too soon. Sitting in the theatre, watching the opening credits of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, I could feel my reticence growing as I looked on the New York skyline, glittering with two columns of light in 9/11 remembrance. The image — evocative, stunning, mournful — is easily used and over-used. Now, less than a year and a half since that date, I wondered what Spike Lee thought he could explain to us about it.

Thankfully, and appropriately, 25th Hour handles the subject in an indirect, incredibly moving way. Though David Benioff wrote the novel before 9/11, his screenplay adapts the central story to function as an effortless metaphor for the events. It follows 24 hours in the life of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), who after years of drug dealing is finally “touched” and faces prison. He must choose how to spend his last night as a free man.

His day fluctuates between the people in his life and the impending reality of incarceration. His suspicions turn to his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), who tries to reach out to him. He must console his father (Brain Cox), an ex-alcoholic who owns an Irish pub and finally goes out for one final, fatal night with his two boyhood friends: mild-mannered school teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and hard-assed stock broker Francis (Barry Pepper). Each of his friends must face their own guilt in turning blind eyes to the situation.

The signs of 9/11 are subtle and ever-present in the film. From the firefighters at his father’s bar to the small flags on cabs and buses, the reminders grace the corner of every frame. The City in Hour is one that is haunted and healing. One of the most poignant scenes takes place in Francis’s apartment overlooking Ground Zero. Francis and Jacob’s come to a realization after tonight, they lose their friend and life as they knew it. Below them, Ground Zero at night is magnetic, otherworldly and transfixing as a tomb. The combination is powerful.

Even its indulgent moments are weaved into the understated emotional current. At one point, Monty faces his own reflection, which propels him into a diatribe against all New Yorkers. The monologue is in some sense Spike Lee proving how cool he can be. At the same time, it fits the film as; you hate the thing that hurts you, you blame what you love. The only critique of the film I would make is one that extends to many of his other films. Lee’s female characters are less complex characters than they are objects. But for all their interactions, in the end, the morality is measured between men.

The real strength of Hour is in its final moments. As Monty faces the ride to prison, his father narrates a dream sequence in which he flees with his son into the West and leaves him to start a new life. The scene ponders escape and a new start for Monty. And yet, we never learn what happens. The 24 hour period is not about plot, but about a frozen state of questioning, a brink. Monty is faced with whether or not to pay for the bulk of his sins. In this respect, Lee reaches us without force-feeding us. He raises questions and issues with no answers: who is to blame and in the process of recovery, how much does that matter? The film is not analytical, not summary, but about the idea of a future after an event that shatters innocence. In the end, on an intensely emotional level, we know only one thing: nothing can ever be the same.

Archived article by Lauren Sommer