The film is inarguably notorious for two sequences: Edward Norton’s extended, lacerating, appropriate “Fuck You” monologue to himself, and the brutal “I need you to make me ugly” testament of friendship. Those scenes are locked; forever imprinted as classic moments of contemporary cinema. As is, in my opinion, Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman verbally dismantling their friend and each other for four unbroken minutes as a gutted Ground Zero rests below them.
Unforgettable moments of an unforgettable film. But they’re far from my favorite.
The swollen-eyed Francis (played by Pepper) is focused intently on the day’s unemployment numbers. Francis is a big time New York bond trader and on this particular morning, he’s gambled $100 million dollars on the hope of a low unemployment number. What a low unemployment number is, and how is it achieved, is beyond me. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the man. The character before us. The brash, aggressive, compulsive predator on the screen. Spike Lee and his screenwriter, David Benioff (who also penned the marvelous novel on which the film is based), want us to know Francis from frame one. And know him we do.
Moments later, Francis’ boss, Sal (played by Lee regular, and former stockbroker, Al Palagonia) approaches Francis, and those three aspects of filmmaking I mentioned really take off. Sal starts bitching Francis out for his impulsiveness, which results in one of the best work-related chew outs I’ve ever heard. “You come in here drinking your red bullshit, you stink like booze, you’re out all night partying – and that’s okay. But when you become a cowboy, that’s when I draw the line.” Just brilliant.
The 25th Hour DVD contains two separate commentary tracks, one from Lee and another from Benioff. On Lee’s track, I learned that this scene was shot on a set, which makes me respect the heaping clutter of boxes, exposed wires, monitors and overly caffeinated young men that much more. Benioff’s track offers even better insight. The writer recalls a memory from when he visited a friend on a bond-trading floor in downtown Manhattan:
“It’s an interesting place, the trading floor. Lot of testosterone. You don’t see any women. You hear a lot of cursing, lot of people yelling into telephones, lot of locker room posturing. It’s very competitive, and I thought it was kind of fun, too.”
Kind of fun, indeed, my friend.