Wednesday, December 3, 2014

From My Collection: 25th Hour Movie Review

In 2002, New York City lay beaten and bruised, injured and left for dead but not without some bite left in her. Certainly the city was ready and willing to dole out punishment to anyone who intended harm again. It’s a lot like the dog Doyle at the opening of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. Someone has abused him, but he lashes out at Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), who only wants to help. Monty takes Doyle in and when the story picks up a year later, the dog is reasonably normal while the city is still reeling from catastrophe.

After the prologue, the credits sequence shows us the Tower of Light Memorial – two high-powered beams of light (actually generated by dozens of spotlights aimed skyward at New York’s Ground Zero) from various points around and just outside the city. These images, beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, haunt the rest of the film. 9/11 hangs like a pall around 25th Hour. This was the first film shot in New York after the attacks and the first film to incorporate a post-9/11 New York into the essence of the setting. The story is not about 9/11, but no one can escape it as fact. Whose story in New York was not about 9/11 at least within the first year? There was nothing to be done that didn’t remind of or recall those events. 25th Hour remains one of the best post-9/11 movies ever made. It is a celebration of New York City and it is also a beautiful story about a young man whose life is about to end when he heads off to prison after this one final day he has with family and friends.

David Benioff adapted his own novel, published before the World Trade Center attacks, and collaborated with director Lee to make a film that works toward a collective healing through the story of an individual. Monty stands at a crossroads. He’s looking for the courage to go on after the cataclysm of a drug conviction that will send him to prison for seven years. His options are to take his punishment, run, or take his own life. Not that he spends any of his final day seriously contemplating the last two options. He takes Doyle for one final morning walk. He visits with his dad (Brian Cox) at the bar he owns that caters mostly to local firemen. The big event is a night out at a club with his two best friends, Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his dream girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson).

And what a dream girl she is! Not only is she stunning in both eveningwear and sweats alike, but she supports her drug dealer boyfriend and wants to wait around until he is released. Monty’s friends are loyal, but cautious in their support and ultimately selfish in their own right. Jacob is a school teacher in the Upper East Side private school the three of them attended. He has an unhealthy obsession with one of his young students (Anna Paquin). Frank is a Wall Street broker obsessed with money and appearance. What he says to Jacob privately about Monty is almost the complete opposite of what he says to Monty’s face. It’s hard to gauge what he really believes, although we’d have to assume that what he says to Jacob more closely adheres to the truth. On the other hand, he may be battling an internal conflict over what to believe. Is his best friend’s life and their friendship truly finished once he goes to prison? Or will they resume their old friendship and open up an Irish bar like they once dreamed?

Anxiety and existential threats pervade the film and haunt these characters. Monty’s story is obvious, but Naturelle faces an uncertain future as she has to move back in with her mother. Jacob’s job and emotional health are threatened by his feelings toward his student. Frank’s fortunes are tied to the economy which stood in a precarious position in 2002. Monty’s father has debts from loans that went into his bar. 25th Hour was already in production when 9/11 occurred and it turned out to be a fortuitous marriage of storylines to set it in post-9/11 New York. Those heavenly-bound spotlights that we see in every shot of the opening credits set the stage and then the sudden view from above (the vantage point of Frank’s downtown apartment) of Ground Zero being dug out brings the full breadth of the destruction to the fore underscored by Terrence Blanchard, who once again provided great beauty and depth to a Spike Lee film through the use of jazz trumpet and Arab-influenced melodies.

Lee has always been one of the great New York filmmakers and while all of his films are love letters to his city, 25th Hour is probably his most poignant. A scene in which Monty stares into a bathroom mirror and unleashes a profanity-laced verbal tirade directed at the many different ethnic and cultural groups of New York (the “Uptown brothers;” Upper East Side housewives; Italian-Americans; Puerto Ricans; gay men in Chelsea; etc.) celebrates, even while it disparages, this wonderfully diverse metropolis. Fascinatingly, the scene resembles an iconic one in Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but it turns out the scene comes from Benioff’s book, which may itself have been influenced by Lee’s earlier film. Monty finally turns the venom on himself, excoriating his own stupid behavior that brought him to his current situation.

While the whole film feels so much like a celebration of New York life and diversity, the coda scene in which Monty’s father imagines a scenario in which Monty runs west and starts a new life for himself turns out to be a beautiful celebration of America, manifest destiny, the American dream, and the self-made man. It is a sequence that suggests hope and future possibilities where Monty’s future looks like a certain dead-end. 2002 was a difficult year for Americans and New Yorkers. We collectively faced a turning point and had lots of existential questions that needed answering. A film can’t necessarily cure a nation’s or a city’s ills, but what the movies have always been good at is showing people ways of behaving and ways of living life. Or at the very least to reflect ourselves back at us and say, “This is who we are.” 25th Hour does all that and leaves us feeling fulfilled and maybe even with a little cautious optimism emerging from the darkest hour.

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