Feelings of anger, guilt, blame and responsibility rage like a tempest through Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, which comes close to being the first major studio-produced film to confront September 11th and its aftermath. Approaching the topic by way of turning specific moods and emotions into allegory, it’s almost the equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (one of the Boss’s songs even plays over the end credits). But Lee, who’s always fashioned his populist diatribes for a public that doesn’t exist, isn’t sensitive enough a filmmaker to focus his awareness into shared empathy like Springsteen did. 25th Hour is as confused by its own emotions as Lee’s last great movie Summer of Sam, but where that film transcended the scattershot chaos, 25th Hour comes up limping. It’s a concept done in by its own lack of purpose, a film that is confident and occasionally graceful but will only connect with viewers who approach their hearts by way of their brains.
Adapted by David Benioff from his own book, the film is ostensibly about Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a high-class drug dealer sentenced to seven years in prison. Monty contemplates his life and the consequences of his choices during his last day of freedom, spending his final night with his two closest friends—Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a prep school English teacher with an unhealthy fixation on one of his students, and Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), a ruthless Wall Street stockbroker—and his long-time girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), who may have been the one who turned him in to the authorities. But Monty’s story is remarkably transformed into a parable about the whirlwind of reactions to 9/11—no secret to anyone in the audience seeing as Lee deliberately sets scenes to the backdrop of Ground Zero cleanup.
Struggling to grasp the inevitability of his sentence, Monty weighs his need to assign guilt with a reluctant acceptance of his future’s bleak finality, knowing that finding the person responsible for his fate can’t do anything to alter its certainty. His friends and family polarize the issue even further: Jacob acts like it’s a non-issue and is already looking forward to Monty’s parole and Slaughtery bluntly professes that Monty got himself into the mess and deserves his fate, while Monty’s father (Brian Cox) offers him the fantasy of escaping it all and starting over, no strings attached.
United by Lee’s perpetual need to inflame any debate into a full-fledged argument, the various elements of 25th Hour are invariably provocative. But the husk of the story isn’t up to the filmmakers’ challenge; it’s apparent in nearly every scene that 25th Hour is a routine moral drama with the tragic 9/11 template superimposed, and while Lee and Benioff have connected the two diverging threads masterfully, the original material isn’t able to handle its share of the load. It’s not that Monty is such an unsympathetic character (which he is) or that Norton struggles to establish the intensity of a young De Niro (who he’s not). It’s that there’s nothing compelling about him beyond his predicament—without his prison sentence you’d never come across Monty Brogan as a main character in a movie. This is an unfortunate instance where the story defines the character, not the other way around.
Forget that Monty’s a drug dealer and he’s just another successful white guy approaching middle age, the kind of ordinary chump that Lee usually mocks. His interactions with the other characters (and their respective subplots) also bear signs of unremarkable mediocrity haphazardly sculpted into some resemblance of curiosity. Jacob’s crush on his talkative student (a bracing Anna Paquin) lays like a pothole the film could not avoid driving over, and Slaughtery’s inflated ego and overaggressive pursuit of the opposite sex could be the scraps left over from Roger Dodger‘s dinner table. A fair number of scenes are devoted to these endeavors, however, and how they fit into Lee’s ruminations on 9/11 have yet to be determined.
With all of its oversights and indulgences, 25th Hour is still a persuasive, undeniably fascinating film—watching Lee throw everything on his mind into the fray, no matter how irreconcilable with the story, makes for an interesting experience. Certain to piss off a lot of viewers is Lee’s revamped tableaux of virtuoso, rapid-fire Do the Right Thing racial hatred, in which Monty, glaring at himself in a bathroom mirror, verbally punishes the various cultural faces of New York City only to wonder if he should be directing the hostility at himself. Another bravura sequence finds Jacob slipping in his determination not to take a bite of the forbidden fruit held by his student during a drunken nightclub encounter; masterfully constructed so that each shot has both visual flair and deeper meaning, it’s the kind of scene that could easily be presented as a stand-alone short film. (It’s probably the single best scene of the year.) And the film’s touching but unsentimental finale, although an evident structural reworking of The Last Temptation of Christ, nonetheless strikes a chord as Lee finally allows us an emotional connection to his protagonist.
In the wake of so many faceless, uselessly emotional television specials about September 11th, 25th Hour is a welcome addition to the unending meditation on the event. It’s detached and clear-headed, like most of Lee’s work, so that you’re never distracted or overwhelmed by tacky sentiment. It also fails to arrive at a concrete point, choosing to declare a draw instead of an outright winner. Ambivalence is normally a welcome response to challenging material, but in the case of 25th Hour, we need more substantiation beyond Lee telling us it may be impossible to arrive at a definitive collective statement about 9/11. That conclusion has already been made many times over, and thus for all of its baby steps in the right direction, 25th Hour winds up feeling ever so slightly like yesterday’s news.