|Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Spike Lee|
25th HOUR A USA (135 mi) 2002 ‘Scope d: Spike Lee
A love letter to New York City and an existential meditation on trauma, offering a definitive portrait of the city after 9/11, while also expressing a personal and poetic response to the lives of those 9/11 victims, whose lives will forever be entangled in that one event, where everything changed after that day, where the future was no longer the future, where hope disappeared, where all the things that could have happened would, for certain, no longer happen. In an instant, it was taken away. Largely overlooked at the time of its release, this faithful adaptation of David Benioff’s debut novel of 2001 was actually written before the terrorist atrocity, yet this is Hollywood's first contemplation of an openly raw national trauma produced by the attacks of September 11, 2001, released just sixteen months after the event, with the New York setting paying tribute, as the opening credits are a memorial to the terror attacks by projecting two powerful Tribute in Light beams into the New York night sky from the site where the Twin Towers used to stand. It’s significant to note that no other Hollywood filmmaker would address this crisis until nearly five years after the attacks, and one might argue it’s still the only one that really matters, the one that best connects with the acutely felt psychic devastation from the massive scope of the tragedy, with most Hollywood studios deleting all references to the Twin Towers, supposedly not wanting to remind audiences of a city in deep mourning and shock, though by that time any citizen or non-citizen, criminal or non-criminal, risked being treated by U.S. authorities as a potential terrorist. Often described as Spike Lee’s white film, along with Summer of Sam (1999), as it was his first to extensively focus on a white protagonist, set in a predominantly white environment, a departure for this director, deviating from his focus on black protagonists and settings. Brilliantly conceived even prior to the attacks, the film is more about a moral reckoning than any narrative focus on 9/11, which is never talked about directly, only dealing with it on a peripheral level, beautifully filmed by Rodrigo Prieto in Super 35mm widescreen on location in the five boroughs of New York City, yet incorporating the Ground Zero excavation site into the filming, as Lee made the wise decision to subtly integrate the destruction of that day into his absorbing story, exercising surprising control and restraint, attributes Lee is not known for, constructing a raw and poignant look at the underbelly of America, as seen through some of the soiled and seamy lives of a few individuals in New York, all searching for redemption, for another chance to do it right, with some terrific performances all around, but easily what is most powerful are the poetic references to 9/11, and how the strength of the characters are so indelibly rooted to New York City. For instance, during the infamous “Rant Scene,” a long monologue entitled the “fuck monologue” where Edward Norton as Monty Brogan (named after Montgomery Clift) stares into a bathroom mirror at his father’s bar and curses the five boroughs of New York and the people living in it (which also strangely highlights the city’s diversity), even cursing his father, a bar owner for “selling whiskey to firemen, and cheering the Bronx Bombers.” In that bar, there’s a memorial to 11 fallen first responders on the wall, a tribute to actual firefighters from Rescue 5 based out of Staten Island, New York (each named in the closing credits) who tragically lost their lives at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Monty’s riveting speech may be the most memorable sequence in the film, offering a quintessential connection with all New Yorkers who live and breathe through that speech, as he’s summing up a citywide anger that flows from every street corner, becoming a time capsule reflection of how they felt at that time, maligned and scorned, left for dead, yet rising from the ashes of the collective dead. This film is basically a contrast between the verticality of the skyscrapers, representative of wealth and prestige, and an unseen criminal underground, defined by Monty as a successful drug pusher, until caught, becoming a battle of the two souls of the city. Thankfully, there are no drug deals in the movie, which does include guns and thugs, but no shootouts. Instead, the visual display of the rivers and city bridges is astonishing, from the East River and the Hudson, showcasing the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Verrazzano, Williamsburg, and George Washington Bridges, with visits to Central Park and Carl Schurz Park, while also taking place in Brooklyn, specifically Dumbo, and Manhattan, highlighting Yorkville, accentuating the architectural beauty and diversity of the city, while the other man-made counterparts are Wall Street’s skyscrapers, a citadel of power and a gateway to opportunities, and Ground Zero, a decimated reminder of a catastrophe hanging over New York with apocalyptic implications, while Jersey-boy Bruce Springsteen (whose mother was from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn) sings over the end credits, Bruce Springsteen - The Fuse (RARE "25th Hour Remix") YouTube (5:29).
Some of the most suggestive scenes of both the film and the novel are the clever insights in the use of New York waterfront areas, namely the Yorkville esplanade on the East River, where most of the 8000 Moses Benches designed for the 1939 World’s Fair still remain offering choice views of the East River, while nearby the luxurious brownstone homes on the Upper East Side where Monty lives offer an oasis of tranquility, allowing him a momentary escape from reality, where his quiet 2-room apartment offers a sanctuary from the street noise and jarring congestion of urban life. Monty and his father James (Brian Cox) are Irish immigrants from the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn, where his father, a former firefighter and recovering alcoholic, still lives and works in his bar, while Monty’s best friend from childhood, Frank (Barry Pepper), works as a stockbroker on Wall Street. Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) is Puerto Rican and from the Bronx, where her mother still lives, while his other best friend Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), born to wealthy Jewish parents from Park Avenue, is a sheepish prep school English teacher. With the exception of Jacob, all come from working-class backgrounds representing the American Dream metaphor for upward mobility, making the most out of their opportunities, yet with each it comes with a cost, as Monty is a drug dealer connected to the Russian mafia, where his father’s bar was paid for from drug money. Frank has no private life from working such long exhaustive hours, while Naturelle could never afford to live in Yorkville were it not for Monty’s money. They are connected to changing neighborhoods, a mosaic of different ethnic groups, as Bensonhurst is now primarily an Italian neighborhood, while the Bronx is part of the postwar migration of blacks and Puerto Ricans coming from East Harlem. This culture mix is not without conflicts, racial and otherwise, as represented in Monty’s extended “Fuck You rant,” Edward Norton Rant 25th Hour YouTube (5:14), among the more blistering scenes in both the book and film, where the words “Fuck you” are written on a bathroom mirror, triggering an angry tirade against all the ethnic groups, social classes, and neighborhoods, “from the projects in the Bronx to the lofts in SoHo, from the tenements in Alphabet City to the brownstones in Park Slope, to the split-levels in Staten Island,” lambasting Pakistani and Sikh cab drivers, gays, panhandlers, Korean grocers, Russian mobsters, Wall Street brokers, Hasidic Jewish jewelers, Upper East Side wives, brothers playing basketball, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Italians, the poor, the wealthy, blacks, the NYPD, Catholic priests, Jesus himself, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, and his friends and father, an insightful reworking of the underlying racial fears that dominate those changing neighborhoods, always afraid some new group will ultimately push them out or redefine the distinctive character of the neighborhood. After a prolonged stereotypical rant blaming all the others, conceived as a montage of horizontal tracking shots of ethnic groups that draw his ire, where his contempt is met with an equal amount of ardor and love, as these are the experiences that define him, he finally turns to himself, suggesting he screwed up and got caught because he got too greedy, saving much of the vitriol for himself, as he had it all and threw it away, claiming he blew it, mirroring a fatalistic refrain heard at the end of Easy Rider (1969), now staring down a seven year stretch in prison, where the story is essentially his last 24-hours of freedom, with another hour added on to travel to the prison and turn himself in. One essential, underlying truth behind this prolonged and highly personalized invective is that what he’ll miss most is the city itself. A flashback sequence reveals the day authorities searched his apartment, knowing full well where everything was stashed, apparently sold down the river by one of his closest friends. With so much compressed into so little time, it portrays a lifetime lived and lost, consumed by guilt over the sudden finality of it all, feeling as if he betrayed his friends and family, yet ultimately has no one to blame but himself. Essentially the psychological examination of a convicted drug dealer serves as a microcosm of New York City’s post 9/11 psyche, addressing the here and now in ways that took audiences by surprise, as things weren’t going to be the same for either Monty Brogan or for the city, where Monty’s attempts to come to terms with a future in prison parallels the city’s attempt to readjust to the changes wrought by 9/11. The mournful Terrence Blanchard score was the only Academy Award nomination, as Hollywood was simply not yet ready to confront such a reality-based provocation that so profoundly touched a raw nerve.
Offering a brief window into the lives of Frank and Jacob, we see Frank is something of a hotshot cowboy hopped up on Red Bull, a lone wolf taking huge chances with other people’s money, defying the cautionary measures installed by his employer to prevent that sort of thing, so he’s already living on the edge, while Jacob listens to Mary D’Annunzio (Anna Paquin), one of his students read a literary passage, yet his entire focus is on an exposed belly tattoo, utterly fascinated, unable to take his eyes off of it, as she reveals a fierce individualism that seems to possess an irresistible sensuality, inconspicuously flirting openly with him. Despite his rather reserved and introverted exterior, he’s already creating sexual fantasies in his head. In each instance, the question is will they cross the line? Before they meet Monty, Jacob meets Frank in his 32nd floor window apartment overlooking Ground Zero, an ominous view that resembles the surface of the moon, with both chatting casually, yet that backdrop has unmistakable meaning that supersedes anything else in the film, becoming a defining moment and one of the more uniquely creative shots in any Spike Lee film, as it can’t be confused or mistaken for anything else. It’s a literal shock to the system. Meeting afterwards at the Bridge Nightclub, a packed house in the Dumbo warehouse district in Brooklyn with a line down the block waiting to get in, Monty has VIP status, with a complimentary bottle of champagne gifted to a special table. Borrowing a line from Francis Bacon, Monty offers a toast, “Champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends,” where an open wound of suspicion regarding who turned him in still haunts him, suspecting Naturelle, but she has no motive, depending on him entirely. Remove the gravy train and she moves back in with her mother in the Bronx. Nonetheless, he remains anxious and openly suspicious of everyone. The long nightclub sequence is the centerpiece of the film, much of it shot in a blue hue, where Naturelle and Mary hit the dance floor with jazz funk music pulsating in the background, Cymande performing "Bra" Live on KCRW YouTube (4:29), given a relaxed and evocative subterranean vibe that veers from in-your-face to the surreal. Downing shots and drinking heavily, their defenses are lowered, where Monty has an appointment with club owner Uncle Nikolai (Levan Uchaneishvili), the sleazy Russian mobster behind the drug operation, testing the waters, so to speak, to see where his loyalties lie, a sequence that explodes in unanticipated violence, yet there are hauntingly surreal moments of Jacob finally acting on his impulses with Mary, a lost innocence that only ends up sending shivers of guilt, while Frank, laden with his own guilt and self-loathing for never once trying to stop his best friend, while also thinking he somehow had it coming, has a blowup with Naturelle while attempting to reconcile Monty’s fall from grace and their respective roles in it, both reeling in their own complicity, yet when he obnoxiously starts to pin the blame on her she righteously puts him in his place and refuses to be associated with the invectives coming out of his mouth. In this scenario, there is plenty of blame to go around, as the conflicted family and closest associates are all playing mind games and psychologically incriminating themselves for what were essentially Monty’s own decisions. By dawn, Frank has to do the unthinkable, in a scene of escalating tension as Monty asks him to pulverize his face, as he refuses to enter prison “looking good,” knowing he would make an easy sexual target, an extension of his biggest fear. It’s a repugnant scene, utterly raw and uncompromising, a challenge of manhood and a thorough reckoning with one’s conscience, yet emblematic of the underlying violence perpetuated throughout the criminal underworld, and an ugly picture of what awaits Monty in prison, where you can be scared of the future and haunted by the past at the same time. It also mirrors the opening scene, as Monty’s beaten face recalls the grotesque body of a bloodied and battered dog at the beginning of the film that Monty suspects still has life within him (a metaphor for his own future), taking him in and nursing him back to health, becoming inseparable, always seen together on the benches overlooking the East River, creating an indelible image to revisit countless times while incarcerated. But as his father arrives to drive him to prison, it leads to one of the most extraordinarily powerful sequences seen in years, with his father offering to turn West and take him as far away as possible, where he can build a new life, with a long monologue that becomes a poetic reverie offering a “What if?” scenario, creating a rapturous montage of utterly breathtaking cinema. Blurring the boundaries between dream and reality, reiterating the myth of freedom on the open road, this sequence offers a rarified glimpse of unfilled ambition. But at what cost? This film accentuates neither black nor white, but focuses on human beings, as if the collective sum of the consequences of their individual choices represents a vision of a newly developing morality.
“...This life came so close to never happening.”
In a brilliant and unparalleled ending, what a searing sequence of images, so exquisitely haunted by the chilling reminder of the unspoken, unseen ghosts of those missing lives, and the lives that will never be, filled with such an appreciation for life, that continually promises a world that might have been, before reminding us, instead, with a kind of effortless sock-in-the face, of how frail and vulnerable we really are, particularly in the devastating aftermath of 9/11, despite our swaggering bravado. Loss figures prominently in this film, lamenting the loss of a loved one, a son, a friend, while also expounding on lost opportunities, saturated with regrets about the past, and nostalgia for a life that is now irrevocably over, making this is a farewell to freedom, from the world we once thought we knew, revealing instead such a powerful portrait of people struggling to overcome their own personal traumas, both internally and externally. This is a shining testament to the resiliency of the human soul, as what we have, ultimately, is a transcendent work that provides a moving and enduring spirit of humanity.
Also, a few differences between the book and the film. In the book Monty drives a Corvette instead of the 1970 bright yellow Dodge Coronet Super Bee (1970 Dodge Coronet Super Bee Spike Lee 25Th Hour Film Mopar For Sale Auction Connecticut Mohegan Sun), he’s 27, it’s his last night before prison, there’s no pitbull jokes, the 4 DEA agents are all white and they don’t catch Monty and Naturelle in the bath tub. Naturelle is a long distance runner, not a basketball player, which of course Spike couldn’t help changing. But overall the movie is fairly faithful to the book. The Victoria Secret joke is there, Naturelle has the Puerto Rican flag tattooed on her ankle, the teacher is in the 62nd percentile. One interesting difference is the 3 options speech of the trader. In the book option number 2 has the trader blatantly imitating suicide putting his fore-finger to his temple and squeezing his thumb down, while in the movie it was taking a bullet with his teeth. Does suicide need to be softened for the masses? The fuck you speech, which is on pages 111 – 113, goes on a bit longer and his fucks directed towards the Knicks and Michael Jordan were of course purged by ardent courtside Knicks fan Spike. The student’s tattoo was on her wrist rather than her navel, though her teacher does ask her what her mother’s reaction was to it. And the teacher stares at her white knees through the holes in her jeans rather than staring at her bare belly. The crying after sex anecdote is told in a slightly different context. Monty’s seduction of Naturelle is much more prolonged and involved, and the end monologue doesn’t include Naturelle, who he will never see again while he is hiding, instead he mates with the bar owner’s daughter. In the original novel, Monty never doubts Naturelle’s loyalty to him, as a subplot of Monty mistrusting Naturelle was added for dramatic effect.