Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For March, we celebrate the birthday (and the decades-long filmography) of one of America’s most pioneering Black filmmakers, Spike Lee. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Watching 25th Hour at this moment in history is an uncanny experience. Released in December 2002 but filmed and set even closer to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, it lives in that time’s wounded and confused Manhattan. As we live through the darkest national tragedy since then, it’s hard not to see the parallels.
Director Spike Lee and writer David Benioff (adapting his first novel into his first screenplay) make it as much about a battered New York City—and the United States by extension—picking itself off the mat as it is about drug dealer Monty Brogan’s (Edward Norton) last day of freedom. While the gift of hindsight tells us that Lee’s vision of post-9/11 America is optimistic compared to what we got, it nonetheless provides hope. Yes, it’s strange to say this about a tale of a man about to lose most of his thirties to life in a Federal Correctional Institute. But life inside the slow-motion isolation chamber of pandemic gives everything a different kind of glow.
Lee, never one for subtlety, makes the film’s thesis clear in the first ten minutes. In what we’ll soon learn is a flashback, we meet Monty and his bodyguard/muscle, Kostya (Tony Siragusa), as they come across a wounded dog. Abandoned by a dogfighting ring, the canine lies on its side, broken and bleeding. Monty, fancying himself as an unsentimental but kind man, plans to mercy kill the dog. However, when he gets close, the pooch snarls and snaps. This wrecked animal still has a lot of fight in him. Audience, meet America after 9/11, personified by a dog named Doyle. Angry, confused, deeply wounded, but not ready to die.
The film will return to this idea of the promise and pain of the United States time and again. Norton, as strong as he’s ever been, spits hate from inside a mirror, seeking anyone to blame but himself for why he’s going to prison. It’s profane, it’s bigoted, and, most interestingly, it feels half-hearted. Because Monty knows the fault lies with himself. Even as he starts, he knows that when he runs out of ethnic groups and geographical moments to cast aspersions upon, he’ll still be the one left standing, holding the bag. He threw a life of promise away for a life of ease.
As the film winds down, Monty’s father, James (Brian Cox), delivers a rejoinder of sorts to Monty’s monologue. As Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto fill the screen with images of America’s cities fading away to its vast open spaces and then, eventually, to its small isolated Southwest towns, Cox muses on how easy it could be to just disappear, to start fresh. Even at the time, audiences would have seen it as a fairy tale, getting lost in America in 2002 was not the prospect it was in, say, 1952.
Nonetheless, it is quiet and powerful, a love letter to the promise of a nation where you really could be anyone—where being “just” a small-town bartender could be as noble and fulfilling as anything else. It is the moment where Benioff and Lee stop playing coy—or what passes for coy in a Lee film—and tip the cards. This isn’t a story about an island between three rivers and the Atlantic; this is a story that stretches from sea to shining sea. In waxing poetic about how Hour is a tribute to American resilience, it can be easy to go overboard and make it seem perfect. Alas, it is not.
For one, 25th Hour tries too hard to be clever, to make everything connect and wrap upon itself. It does things like introduce us to a heroin addict in its first modern-day scene and then show us that addict as an upscale shirt and tie type buying a gram from Monty outside a playground. As noted above, Lee has never been a filmmaker of great subtlety. That works wonderfully when wrestling with the messiness of the United States. When you’re delivering a blunt PSA about the dangers of drug use in the midst of your 135-minute film, however, it thuds pretty heavily.
There are also some weirdly unexamined threads concerning girls on the cusp of adulthood and older men. One of them concerns Monty’s friend Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who struggles with an attraction to his standout high school junior Mary D’Annunzio (Anna Paquin). The age differences, and the legal and moral problems therein, are acknowledged, but not commented upon. Why do all that work, especially with an issue that only gets increasingly more disturbing with time, and then not have a perspective to share?
And yet, despite these unnecessary threads of plot and obvious sloganeering, 25th Hour remains an undeniably powerful and compelling film. Lee includes his usual visual tricks and nicely deploys his floating camera motif thrice. It shows the versatility of the technique, how it can convey near-total joy and sensations of being utterly lost and hopeless with equal verve.
This isn’t a story about an island between three rivers and the Atlantic; this is a story that stretches from sea to shining sea.
But it’s the performances that amplify Prieto’s visual work into unexpected moments of grace. Take for instance when Monty’s best friends, Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and Jacob, meet at Frank’s apartment. Bought with stockbroker money, it overlooks Ground Zero. As the camera holds above them, it tips downward to capture them with the site looming behind and down below. The trio discusses what it’s like to live there: Frank is all bluster and dismissal, Jacob more spooked. Jacob looks at the site the whole time, while Frank can only glance.
It’s a wonderful convergence of shot, angle, and performance that tells us everything about the characters’ relationship and about Frank. Purely through body language, Pepper reveals how fake Frank is, how sad and scared. He held onto his apartment, he doesn’t fear the air quality or another attack, but he can’t even look at the site for more than a glancing moment. While Norton is excellent, this is likely Pepper at his absolute best.
As a showcase for style, 25th Hour is a lesser Lee. But as an expression of Lee’s philosophy, it’s important and insightful. Few films better express his bruised affection for the United States and the city where he was born and raised.
After all, for all his criticisms, Lee ultimately loves America. That’s why he can make a movie like this, where Monty rages against New York’s five boroughs and the stereotypes therein, and have those very same stereotypes line up on the streets to say goodbye to the latest of their own going to prison. Lee, on a level unlike nearly any other filmmaker, can hold the promise of the idea of America in one hand and the pain of its reality in the other.