Today is a lot of things. For many, it’s treated as a date of reflection. And because my general reflection on most everything somehow manages to fuse film into my thought process, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain with Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is the most important film ever made about 9/11.
Hollywood didn’t want to talk about 9/11. They didn’t want a goddamn thing to do with it. In the months following the attacks, movies containing moderate-to-excessive violence were pushed back or shelved all together. The L.A.-set Training Day and Collateral Damage were delayed, the Twin Towers were digitally removed from the Spider-Man teaser trailer, the ending to Lilo and Stitch was reedited away from its 747 joyride – the list is damn near endless. And by and large, Hollywood did what they sought to do: they effectively entertained people. For two hours at a time, they made America forget how shitty things were.
Spike Lee said fuck that. As dedicated a New York filmmaker as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, or really anyone, Lee saw a golden opportunity to expose 9/11 (and the heightened paranoia surrounding it) via his New York-set 25th Hour. In hindsight, it is as audacious a feat as Lee has ever attempted, of which there are many. He didn’t want to brush 9/11 under the carpet and pretend like it didn’t happen. The man had no interest in helping people forget. Rather, he told people it was okay to feel what they felt, which was pissed off.
25th Hour tells the story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), an uptown hustler who in 24 short hours will begin a seven-year prison sentence for dealing drugs. The film follows him as he says goodbye to his loyal girlfriend, confused friends, and guilt-ridden father. So, at its core, the film has not a thing to do with the terrorist attacks. This is because the movie is based on David Benioff’s riveting source novel, which was published in January of 2001.
Benioff didn’t draft his story around 9/11 because 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. Lee had more than a year to reflect on the attacks before he decided to blow them wide open.
From the film’s opening credit sequence on, Lee makes no qualms about where his film is going to go. An extended montage slowly reveals the Tribute of Light, an art installation of nearly 100 searchlights that shined bright as a means of commemorating what once rested there. Terence Blanchard’s eerie music wails over the soundtrack as the film’s credits gently flip by. It’s as haunting (and purposefully obvious) as anything seen in the film, which is saying a hell of a lot.
Nearly midway through the movie, Monty’s best friends, shy prep school teacher Jake (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Wall Street playboy Frank (Barry Pepper), meet at Frank’s downtown apartment before meeting up with Monty for drinks. Jake walks into the apartment (side note: pay close attention to how they awkwardly greet each other, they share a look for a half a second that perfectly surmises the pain they are feeling), Frank gets a few beers, and we track them to the windowsill where the camera elegantly, beautifully, unflinchingly unveils the hollowed holes where the Twin Towers once stood tall.
“You gonna move?” Jacob asks
“Fuck that man, as much good money as I pay for this place?” Frank callously retorts. “Bin Laden can drop another one right next door, I ain’t moving.”
There’s something refreshing in Frank’s cold reply, as if he’s saying, “Yeah, it happened, and what the hell do you want me to do about it? Fuck harping, I’m getting on with my life.”
I mean… this is the man’s view from his damn living room. It’s a fresh reminder in all its candid glory: here’s where we’ve been, and maybe it’s time to start rebuilding.
And then there’s the scene. The boss of it all. The Fuck You montage (which, admittedly, takes place directly before the scene set in Frank’s apartment). Taking cinematic liberties as a means of contemplation, Lee has Monty silently look at himself in the mirror, as his reflection says “Fuck you” to the city that raised him. The epic speech starts with Monty spitting racial epitaphs toward a majority of the cultures that help make New York City as diverse as it is.
And then things get personal.
He weighs in on corrupt cops, pedophiliac priests and the church that protects them, hell, he even has a go at JC (as he humorously refers to him). And directly after he’s through spitting venom at the good lord, there is the briefest of pauses before the film goes all in.
“Fuck Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and backward-ass cave-dwelling fundamentalist assholes everywhere,” Monty screams as we cut to various news clips of the terrorist leader in training. Monty goes on for a bit longer, before culminating with a direct, loyal homage to real life New York Firefighter Mike Moran, who told Bin Laden to kiss his “royal, Irish ass” on national television.
Spike Lee has made a number of great films. He’s also made a fair amount of duds, but, truth be told, he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, He Got Game, and When the Levees Broke are all perfect films. They’re unique and unwaveringly bold in that flawless Spike Lee way. But if you ask me what the best film of Spike Lee’s career is, I’m going to quickly reply 25th Hour.
Take 9/11 out of the movie, and I stand by my statement. Consider the movie as it is – an undaunted, remorseless masterpiece, and it is one of the finest films I have ever seen.
Spike Lee can produce complete and utter crap for the rest of his career as a film director, and I’ll always revere him in the highest light. The man talked about America’s greatest tragedy when no one else would. There’s a specific honor in that that's important to reflect on.