Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) gets to spend 24 hours with his two best friends before he goes to prison for seven years for pushing heroin in "25th Hour."
‘25th Hour’ one of year’s best films
Spike Lee accurately depicts New York life
after Sept. 11
By Christy Lemire
Dec. 19 — Spike Lee accomplishes a couple of remarkable things with “25th Hour.” He takes a potentially preachy subject — a drug dealer’s last day of freedom before beginning a seven-year prison term — and infuses it with disarming realism. And he’s made the first movie — not a documentary, but a feature — to depict New York accurately in the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
THE FILM’S tag line — “Can you change your whole life in a day?” — suggests the kind of prepackaged, perfectly timed epiphanies that made recent movies like “Pay It Forward,” “Life as a House” and “Life or Something Like It” so mind-numbingly gooey.
In Lee’s movie, no one knows what to say or how to act around Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) before he leaves.
Not his girlfriend, Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson), who may have turned him in to the cops. Not his childhood friends, slick Wall Street trader Francis Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and self-loathing high school teacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with whom he has nothing in common anymore besides a shared history. And not his father (Brian Cox), who doesn’t know how to help his son because he’s still mourning Monty’s deceased mother.
The conversations they have in David Benioff’s script, based on his 2001 novel of the same name, ring true because they’re not perfect. Monty’s friends feel guilty because they knew he was dealing drugs, yet they never tried to stop him. Naturelle especially benefited from her boyfriend’s profession; she lived with him in a beautiful brownstone, ignoring the stash hidden inside a couch cushion.
So Monty doesn’t really change that much in the 24 hours before he leaves for prison, and that’s what’s great about “25th Hour.” It would have been easy to take a bad person and make him good, but Monty wasn’t really a bad person to begin with. He was a drug dealer and he got greedy, so he probably doesn’t deserve our sympathy. But the character is developed so completely, and Norton breathes such life into him, it’s hard not to care about what happens to him.
AFTER THE ATTACKS
Lee and Benioff also create a stunningly complete vision of New York City, post-Sept. 11.
The novel was finished before the attacks, but there’s no way that Lee, who personifies New York, could be true to his craft and true to his city without showing the way it changed.
After Sept. 11, filmmakers struggled with how to depict a New York that had become vastly different from the one they’d captured on celluloid. Some digitally erased the World Trade Center towers (“Zoolander”) or edited out shots that included them (“Kissing Jessica Stein,” “Serendipity”). Others simply left them in (“Glitter,” “City by the Sea”).
Lee’s unflinching title sequence focuses on the downtown skyline as it appeared around the one-year anniversary of the attacks, with two beams of light stretching skyward from the spot where the towers had stood.
Monty visits his father at the bar he owns in Staten Island — a firefighter hangout with memorials on the walls to the men who died.
And Slaughtery and Jacob have a long conversation in front of a picture window in Slaughtery’s high-rise apartment, which overlooks Ground Zero. Jacob asks whether Slaughtery plans to move, since the air quality downtown is so bad.
Slaughtery’s response: “(Bleep) that, man. Bin Laden could drop in next door — I ain’t movin’.”
People living elsewhere may think Lee is beating the audience over the head with the imagery, but that’s what the city was really like. It was saturated in sorrow — you couldn’t escape talking or thinking about what had happened.
Lee seamlessly blends Monty’s story with New York City’s. The result is darkly funny and powerful, with insightful performances from Norton, Hoffman and Pepper. It’s the director’s best work since “Malcolm X,” maybe even since “Do the Right Thing,” and it’s one of the year’s best films.