Wednesday, December 23, 2009

25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)

The aftermath of the September 11 attacks affecting cinema subtly at first, most noticeably the digital removal of the Twin Towers in films then in production (Spider-Man, etc.). But all eyes were on the filmmakers from New York, directors who'd collectively defined the city cinematically. Woody Allen, who gave an impassioned speech at the following Oscars concerning the need for filmmakers to continue working in the city, never touched upon 9/11 as a subject in his subsequent films, more concerned with the cosmic tragedy of mankind to focus on any one event. Martin Scorsese responded with a sprawling tribute to his beloved hometown in the only way he knew how: by charting its history of crime. And so, fittingly, the task of directly commenting on the attacks fell on that most dogged and irascible of NY directors: Spike Lee, a filmmaker so gifted and visceral that even his weakest efforts are worth watching.

25th Hour, it's safe to say, is not one of his weakest efforts. Taken in context of the rest of his career, it stands out as a highlight of a career peppered with a handful of modern classics. Under his fiery hand and David Benioff's adaptation of his own novel, Benioff's original story of social strata in New York City becomes a commentary on the city's present and the choices it has for its future in the wake of 9/11.

In the opening scene, Monty (Edward Norton), a swaggering thug, and his Russian compatriot stop on the way to an assignment from their crime bosses when they stumble upon an abandoned, severely wounded dog, likely a fighting hound who lost someone money. Monty approaches to put the poor beast out of its misery, but the dog comes alive and snaps viciously, impressing the man. The dog is the first of many symbols of post-9/11 New Yorkers, partially buried in the trash, bruised and bloody, but dammit he's still alive and as temperamental as ever.

Lee then cuts to the opening credits, played over shots of the Tribute in Light at Ground Zero, then resumes the film four years later, only a few months after the terrorist attacks. The intervening years have not been kind to Monty: we learn that he dealt drugs for his bosses until cops "touched" him. Feds show up at his apartment and find bags of money and drugs (the DEA agent heading the investigation is played by Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who ports over his elongated pronunciation of "sheeeeeeit" from She Hate Me, the same he would later take to The Wire, for a perfect enunciation of just how screwed Monty is).

Facing seven years in prison, Monty looks for one last night of fun with his pals and girlfriend. Norton's performance rates among his finest: the cocksure, brash thug in the first scene morphs in the sudden temporal leap into a withdrawn, doomed individual, barely capable of masking his terror behind a stoic cool. His world's been turned upside-down, and even the little things chip away at him: he heads to his old high school to visit his friend Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who teaches there, and while he waits he brags about his old basketball skills to another teacher. When he mentions that he holds the school's all-time assist record, the teacher casually informs him that a student beat it last year. When things go wrong.

Jacob and Monty's other friend, Wall Street trader Frank (Barry Pepper) portray the class differences of Benioff's original novel and how the characters, for their vastly different social standing, all have a impressive amount of money: Jacob was born into wealth but feels embarrassed by being a man in his 30s with a trust fund; Frank is entrusted with tens of millions of dollars and tasked to make those tens into hundreds; and lowly Monty earns his opulent lifestyle through selling bricks of heroin. In that sense, they're all the same, but they rag on each other for their backgrounds: Frank insults Jake's lack of "true wealth" and uses that to justify his made-up ratings scale of a man's prospects of finding a woman in New York, though Jake retorts by noting that Frank eats with his fingers and is just generally forceful. At several intervals, Frank rages against the path Monty chose, ranting that his oldest friend drives in a car "paid for by the misery of other people," yet we met Frank investing money according to how he believed the unemployment figures would affect stock numbers.

All three men serve as representatives of some aspect of post-9/11 New York life: Jake, the intellectual, hides in the ivory tower of his preppy high school; Frank profits from the unemployment figures in the financial uncertainty in the wake of the attack, and he even lives in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero; Monty, of course, comes the closest to reflecting the "average" New Yorker. Obviously, the average New Yorker is not a criminal living on drug money, but of the three he maintains the closest ties to a working middle class background. His father (the always entertaining Brian Cox), owns a bar where he cheers the Yankees with all the firefighters and other hardworking fellas. Where Frank and Jake enjoy relatively stable life trajectories, Monty, the man on the streets, faces a dismal future and doesn't know what to do.

Of course, lest we define 25th Hour as one big symbol of New York without the World Trade Center, it's important to note that the film has its own narrative. Its characters want instant gratification in life, Frank and Monty through their get-rich-quick professions (one illegal, the other the backbone of our economic self-perception) and Jake through hisephebophiliac crush on one of his students (Anna Paquin, oddly hypnotic even before taking into account the ethereal manner in which Lee shoots her). In a way, 25th Hour is a coming-of-age tale, about three immature, emotionally retarded men -- Jake's trust fund wealth suggests a much younger man still under his parents' care, Frank escaped from the Irish neighborhood but now fervently talks of opening a bar with Monty when he leaves prison, and Monty is going to prison essentially for being a glorified courier. By the film's end, each must confront his hangups and decide whether to continue on his current life track.

To say that Lee's direction is exemplary is almost an insult to his talents as a filmmaker. I always enjoy his ability to inject his film school knowledge into such immediate character studies; among other, subtler references in Do the Right Thing was an open nod to The Night of the Hunter, and the Cool Hand Luke poster in Monty's flat smacks of a modern update of Michel's idolization of Bogey in Breathless. The film's centerpiece, set in a swanky club where Monty and co. spend his last night of freedom, is a dramedic masterpiece where the fast-paced editing of the preceding scenes morphs into dreamlike state of floating characters, blinding color schemes and slow trance music. Lee uses the sequence to get to the root of the characters' hangups, from the amusing black comedy of Jake struggling with his infatuation with student Mary (Monty brought her in with the gang) to more serious development between Frank and Monty. The question of who sold Monty out drives the tension of the sequence, and the reveal of his Judas allows him a moment to prove that he's outgrown the brutish behavior that got him pinched, though by turning his back on his Russian bosses' punishment of the rat he demonstrates that he's not quite mature yet.

The sequence and the resultant conclusion brilliantly draw the demons out of the characters and reveal the depths of their immaturity: Frank makes those drunken promises about opening a bar and assures Monty that he'll be there when his buddy's done with his sentence, but the boisterous tough guy balks when Monty begs him to rough him up to avoid entering prison with his handsome looks attracting the attention of other inmates. Jake exhibits self-control and obvious discomfort with his urges toward Mary, but all he needs is a bit of alcohol to tear down the barriers he built for himself.

Ironically, the most mature character, Monty's girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), is the youngest. We see the couple meet in a flashback, when Naturelle was 18 and Monty was "old enough to have to ask" about her age. She's a kind and supportive soul, proud of her heritage where all three of the men try to bury theirs. Everyone -- detectives, the Russians, even Frank -- suggests to Monty that she sold him out to the cops, but any one scene with her convinces us that she would never have done such a thing. Perhaps that drains the tension, but Lee deftly adapts by centering the suspense on whom Monty thinks ratted.

Lee intertwines the maturation arcs of these characters with his 9/11 commentary at the end. Monty forces Frank to at last back up his empty promises with action, and the emotional fallout signals to the trader that he's not the superior creature he envisions himself. Jake must look after Doyle, the dog Monty rescued and that initial symbol of New York, and the responsibility of caring for the dog (and the avenue it provides for chatting to ladies of a more appropriate age) suggests healthy relationships in his future. On the way to prison

Responsibility is the entire crux of the film. Monty eats a final meal with his father -- in a hole-in-the-wall place with memorials to the firefighters who lost their lives on September 11, no less -- who blames himself for Monty's transgressions because of his alcoholism after Monty's mother died. He accepts responsibility for his son's failure, something that is not actually his fault (though Monty points out when James said that the boy could have been a lawyer that his criminal activities kept dad out of debt, revealing that some blame indeed does fall on James' shoulders). This scene leads to the most memorable part of the film, in which Monty heads into the restaurant's bathroom and launches into an impromptu rant, chewing out the various races and ethnicities of the city in a racist tirade to match the one in Do the Right Thing. Some of his attacks gain traction, such as the vicious tongue lashings he gives to Osama, Catholic pedophiles and CEOs who defraud investors and employees. After he insults everyone, including the other individual characters, he finally turns on himself: " No," he reprimands himself, "fuck you, Montgomery Brogan. You had it all, and you threw it away."

Naturally, New Yorkers hold no share of the blame for the terrorist attacks, but they, and all Americans, had a responsibility to respond to them in a certain manner. Monty's freewheeling rant directs his anger in all directions, not unlike the xenophobia felt in the wake of the attacks. He realizes that his hatred is misguided, though, when he finally turns his rage inward and sees that he's only really made at himself. Lee mirrors that scene at the end, when Monty, on his way to Otisville , passes a genteel, calmly edited version of the faces who flashed on the screen as targets of his earlier diatribe. They all smile and seem to wish him well, showing that we really are in all this together. Compare this image of beauty and unity, lacking any cynicism, to all the empty proclamations made by pundits and politicians nominally wishing to go back to that sense of togetherness in the wake of the attacks; Glenn Beck's 9/12 malarkey was nothing more than the first part of Monty's rant, a promotion of anarchic racism, not unity for the mutual benefit of members of society. Lee would later find much to hate about the resulting management of the attacks and the path the Bush administration took (for those who haven't seen his Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, flip over to Amazon and order it. Then come back and thank me), but 25th Hour, made so soon after the attacks, is one of the most hopeful responses to the tragedy.*

That scene of Monty riding to prison brings the film's central theme of responsibility to a head. James offers to hang a left at the George Washington Bridge and ride his son to freedom. In an alternate vision that comes straight out of Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, James speaks over his imagined rescue of his son, detailing how he'd drive Monty across this great land to start a new life, that maybe Naturelle could move out to wherever he goes after police attention lessens after a few years. Cox's monologue is beautiful and pained, almost pleading his son to agree to the plan, but when Lee cuts back to reality they've already passed the bridge. Monty, symbol of the average New Yorker and post-9/11 America in general, had two self-destructive options: lose himself in hatred, as he did in the bathroom scene, or run and hide from his problems, forced to live a life -- break out your plastic flags, everyone -- devoid of personal freedom or dignity. Instead, he chooses to face his future, without cowardice but also without hatred and a lack of contemplation. Even if the country did not follow in his footsteps, 25th Hour remains a hopeful, beautiful portrait of our potential to overcome personal and national tragedy, in no way invalidated by real-life responses.

*It's fitting that the other genuinely hopeful, non-manipulative response to the tragedy, Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, lends one of its tracks to the film.

1 comment:

  1. Your reviews are a pleasure to read. Owing up to our own personal responsibilities was definitely a major theme in this gem of a film. Thank you for translating that so eloquently.