Sunday, February 9, 2014
Shadows and Light: 25th Hour
At the start of 25th Hour, near the site where today the near-complete Freedom Tower stretches 1,776 feet into the sky, spotlights beam in memoriam for the World Trade Center towers that stood there before, dominating the downtown portion of Manhattan's skyline for 30 years. 25th Hour was released in January 2003, just 16 months after the towers fell, and it was the first movie to stare 9/11 directly in the eye. (Movies like United 93 and World Trade Center were still years away.) Working from a novel published before the attacks, Spike Lee didn't have to "go there" to stay faithful to David Benioff's original text but he seemed autobiographically compelled, as if the famously proud New Yorker who had tapped into the spirit of the city in previous films was incapable of shooting a movie in this new New York without confronting how it had changed.
Perhaps Lee also took into account that his early-2003 audience was equally incapable of looking at New York without thinking about what was missing. Thus, he traded background whispers for foreground shouts. As the opening titles appear, Lee offers a montage of the searchlights shining heavenward in tribute from a city still in mourning. Coupled with Terence Blanchard's midnight-blue score, it made for a powerful image, and also a distracting one. Those spotlights might as well have been pointed directly into the camera. With 9/11 still dominating our worldview, Lee's 9/11 references dominated the view of 25th Hour. At least from where I was standing.
It seemed a little grotesque at the time, a little gratuitous, a little opportunistic. In a movie that includes a fourth-wall-breaking monologue with the phrase "Fuck Osama bin Laden" and a montage of the clean-up efforts at Ground Zero, Lee was forceful with his 9/11 imagery but not eloquent. His anger and sorrow were unmistakable, but there didn't seem to be much commentary beyond those emotions and, more to the point, those emotions didn't seem particularly appropriate to the movie's whole. Lee's 9/11 stuff felt affixed for grisly aesthetic purposes like a limb on Frankenstein's monster, the seams in plain view. It was as if Lee had been so determined to take this opportunity to comment on 9/11 — and be the first major filmmaker to comment on 9/11 — that he didn't pause to reflect on if what he had to express (even if it was just raw emotion) had any real place in this movie. But, again, that's how it felt then.
Watching 25th Hour again, 11 years later, the forcefulness of the 9/11 moments feels core to the film's tragic beauty and character. Those disaster zone images that were ubiquitous at the time have a renewed punch now, and Lee's palpable fury and sadness awaken hibernating emotions. More so than many of the movies that are specifically about 9/11, 25th Hour is a time capsule for that moment. But it's more than that, because removed from the fog of January 2003 (a few months before Bush would declare war on Iraq as part of his administration's response to the 2001 attacks), which made Lee's spotlights on 9/11 so startling, that material now seems vital to everything around it. Not organic, exactly; it still feels tacked on. But without it, 25th Hour wouldn't just lose some of its historical significance. It would lose much of its soul.
It seems so obvious now: At its essence, 25th Hour is about a guy struggling to come to grips with an upcoming prison stint for drug trafficking that will end lifelong friendships, take him away from his beautiful girlfriend and transform a life of relative luxury into one of constant survival. In short, he's a man whose life is about to be redefined who is trying to cling to the way things were, the way he wanted them to be forever. That should sound familiar, because that's a decent description for America in the initial dusty aftermath of 9/11. We knew our world was fundamentally changed forever — or at least as far into the future as we were capable of imagining in that moment — and while we accepted that, and maybe even took responsibility for it to a certain extent, it was a fate we accepted only by force, constantly wishing we could go back to the moment before disaster struck when, we realized in retrospect, our lives had been richer than we'd given them credit for.
25th Hour's 9/11 imagery is primarily delivered in four bold sequences: the opening credits montage of the "Tribute in Light"; the "fuck-you" monologue when Edward Norton's Monty spews pent-up rage at all things New York and namedrops bin Laden along the way; the 5-minute cut-free exchange between Barry Pepper's Frank and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jacob in front of an apartment window overlooking Ground Zero, which is immediately followed by a montage of Ground Zero itself; and the poetic "we drive" sequence narrated by Brian Cox as Monty's father, which imagines tragedy as avoidable.
It was that third sequence — the Ground Zero overlook — that seemed particularly gratuitous upon the movie's release, in part because the bright lights of the clean-up efforts in the background served as sloppy misdirection (read: distraction) to the conversation in the foreground. But now, with some distance, I find harmony in that juxtaposition, and even some provocation. As Frank argues with Jacob about what will become of their childhood buddy, Frank says of Monty: "I love him like a brother but he fucking deserves it." If Monty can be seen as a stand-in for an America mired in 9/11, that's quite a statement — one that, frankly, it's hard to imagine Lee intending at the time. But the line that ends the conversation and serves to transition the scene into the Ground Zero montage is a no-nonsense fastball down the middle: "It's over after tonight," Frank insists. Things will never be the same.
That was post-9/11 in a nutshell, and that summary also neatly applies to the movie's only subplot of substance, the flirtatious relationship between Jacob, a high school teacher, and one of his students, Anna Paquin's Mary. Jacob's desires are obvious from the beginning; he knows he shouldn't but can't say no — less to her than to himself. As Monty deals with the aftermath of his Big Mistake, we watch Jacob stumble toward his potentially life-altering error, eventually planting a kiss on Mary in a club bathroom, prompting a reaction that makes it clear that she either never saw it coming or never thought he'd go through with it. As crimes go, Jacob's small kiss might be less criminal than getting caught with large amounts of narcotics in the living room sofa. But the effect is almost as damaging. We can see in Jacob's stunned face, captured in one of Lee's trademark gliding shots, that his life has changed. No going back.
No running away, either. When after a night of grave celebration Monty starts his journey toward prison, his father pitches an alternative so vivid that we want it to be real. Go to the desert, he urges his son. "The desert is for starting over," he says. But like many romantic notions, it's an unrealistic one. Some disasters leave scars and can't be escaped. Some disasters change us faster than we could change ourselves. Start over? For Monty, that would take forgetting who he was, and for Americans in 2003 forgetting was something we couldn't abide. In the micro and macro senses, 25th Hour is about bracing for the fate we'd never imagined. In retrospect, Lee's 9/11 references weren't tangents. They were incisions into the heart of the matter. It took a decade of distance for me to see the light.
[Editor's note: The first draft of the above was written on what turned out to be the eve of Philip Seymour Hoffman's tragic death. Hoping to provide some more specific thoughts on the great actor later this month.]