Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why 25th Hour is the Most Important Film Ever Made About 9/11


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.

To back this claim up, it’s important to start at the beginning.

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.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw this movie. It was late December 2002, and I sat in the theater stunned through every one of its 135 minutes. During the Tribute of Light sequence, I sat silently impressed, if not melancholic. When the camera reveled Frank’s living room view, I let out a gentle, “Oh, wow.” But when Edward Norton told Osama Bin Laden to go fuck himself, my jaw literally dropped. I leaned forward in my seat, dumbfounded that someone had the balls to do what Lee was doing.

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.

22 comments:

  1. Absolutely phenomenal film and great write-up. The first time I watched it I didn't pick up on the 9/11 metaphors and importance (yet still thoroughly enjoyed it as a film), but the next two times that I watched it all I could see was a film about 9/11.

    I feel like the "Make me ugly" scene is one of the key scenes in the film, along with the afore mentioned montage and scene looking over ground zero, and there is some complex metaphor for Monty representing America and the beatdown and following prison sentence being 9/11 and its aftermath.

    I also love the reoccurring blue lighting from the intro credits in the club scene. The lighting of everything that takes place in the club is spectacular.

    It's a shame that the film isn't seen as such a culturally significant film, when people mention 9/11 in cinema Fahrenheit 9/11 and Untied 93 (which I think are both magnificent films) are the two everyone talks about, when the effects of 9/11, and America in a post-9/11 context are explored just as keenly in this film as the tragedy is in the previously mentioned films.

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    1. Great comment here, buddy. Thanks so much for your compliments about the post and the insightful notes about the flick. I love how metaphorical you see the film. The notion of the blue light repetition is groovy, as is his beat down representing the pain of America at the time.

      Glad you love this movie so much, it's a doozy!

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  2. It's a very underrated movie and while I thought it was good the first time around. Later viewings made me realize how powerful it is. I think it's one of Spike's best works. Definitely a great way to start the 9/11 film series along with the September 11-11'9'01 anthology film, and United 93.

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    1. Oh yeah, for sure. Three very powerful films right there. Glad to you like and appreciate 25th Hour so much.

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  3. Excellent post. I really really really want to see this movie again, it's incredible.

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    1. Thanks man! I could practically watch it on repeat.

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  4. This movie looks phenomenal. In fact, I was looking for this at a number of video stores the other day (even the ruins of Blockbuster), and no one had it. Shame. I'm going to find it!

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    1. Ah, it is SO GOOD. Profund and epic and audacious. You could by it from Amazon or wherever and you would in no way be sorry!

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  5. Terrific write-up man. It's a masterful film, and I'll be rewatching it soon.

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    1. Thanks dude. I seriously can never watch this movie too much.

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  6. I was just as in awe as you the first time I saw this recently, one of the few films to live up to and eclipse the hype as one of the very best films of it's decade. The 'in-your-face'ness of post-9/11 NYC adds so much more to the tragedy of Monty. Even in the face of an unfathomable event as 9/11 everyone Monty knows will continue on with their lives. "Yeah, the attacks happened, what of it?" The only one who's life is not going on, will be on hold, will be his own. Brian Cox's speech at the end just about brings me to tears every time. Definitely high in my top 10 a must see before-you-die category.

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    1. Excellent comment here, Jeff. Couldn't agree more with you. It's funny when you go back and read the book, because it really is quite brilliant, but what Lee brought to the film with all of the 9/11 subtext is just epic.

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  7. I haven't watch 25th Hour, but it seems worth a watch. Great writing as usual!

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    1. Thanks! Ah, you MUST watch this movie. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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  8. I agree 25th Hour was really good, my favorite by Spike Lee as well. A brave response to the terrorist attacks. Also, one of Edward Norton’s best performances since Fight Club and American History X. Norton's mirror monologue was indeed powerful, so was The Bruce Springsteen song "The Fuse" in credits.

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    1. Nice man, glad you like it. Definitely my favorite Spike Lee and my favorite Edward Norton performance. It's still shocking to me that this didn't get a single Oscar nomination. One of the bravest flicks I've ever seen.

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  9. Powerful piece. Love reading people write about the films they love the most. I've seen it - twice - and liked it a great deal both times and now all I want to do is re-visit it.

    Great line here: "It’s as haunting (and purposefully obvious)..." That describes a lot of Spike's best stuff, don't you think? And that's hard to do. Make something that's purposefully obvious so haunting. I think that's why he has duds. He's always reaching high for something.

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    1. Thanks Nick! It's funny, I didn't really consider that term applying to the majority of Spike's stuff, but you're absolutely right. Say what you will about him, but the man goes all in, everytime. Ya dig?

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  10. Awesome post, man. This really is a great film. I saw it for the second time earlier this year, and it was even better than the first. I agree with Nick above -- you've made me want to give it another go. Great job.

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    1. Thanks Eric! Hey dude, if I can in any way get anyone to watch this film (for the first time, or another time), then I guess I've done my job!

      Really glad you like this flick.

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  11. Hi, I'm Stefano from Cagliari, Italy.
    I absolutely agree. This is one of the most important film of the last 30 years and one of my favourite ones ever. I also always thought that 9/11 played a central part in it. I think it has a lot in common with the Noir films the '30 and '40s for it shows a society in pain, trapped inside a sort of self destructive spiral.
    I was in the USA in September-October 2001 and I perfectly remember the sense of paranoia, the feeling of insecurity that was in the air in those days. I think that the impossibility of really trusting someone or something (the government, friends, girlfriend, teachers, financial institutions etc ...) is an important topic in the film: 9/11, the Enron scandals really brought americans to reconsider their trust in the government and in the social structure in which they live. America had to look in the mirror to understand what had really happened. How couldn't they know? Are they protecting us? Do they take care for us? These are some of the questions subtly asked by the film.
    The story of Monty is also the one of a man who pays for his mistakes and who is aware of his guilt. It's no secret that the 9/11 attacks were done as a response to USA's foreign policy and, especially, to its much debated support to Israel military operations.
    I think that the end of the movie also bitterly suggests that small tragedies and big ones, Monty's or 9/11, have something in common: maybe they wouldn't have ever happened if different decisions hade been taken in the past.

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    1. Hey Stefano, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I really appreciate it.

      You know, for a man not born and raised here, you have a very good handle on America, its policies, and the fear that is prevalent in many of its citizens. Really insightful comment here. I absolutely love this film, and always enjoy hearing others' thoughts on it.

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