Director Spike Lee’s preoccupation with the events of 9/11 first becomes evident during the opening credits of 25th Hour, which spotlight the infamous “Towers of Light” that emanated from Ground Zero at the end of last year. From there, 9/11 is everywhere; not simply alluded to, but prominently highlighted in numerous moments of hats-off, hands-over-heart gravity: lingering shots of a shrine to fallen firefighters, glimpses of Osama bin Laden “Wanted” posters, a tirade on the evils of Al Quada, and, most conspicuously, a histrionic overhead shot of Ground Zero, accompanied by bombastic swells of dramatic music.
“What’s wrong with that,” you rightly wonder as a loyal citizen of New York City. The obvious answer is “nothing,” but it’s not exactly true. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with remembering, reflecting, or even documenting the tragic events of September 11th and their aftermath, but perhaps Lee should have made a film about that – a topic of clear importance to him – rather than simply jamming the subject into a movie with which it has little relevance. As it is, he does neither 9/11 or his screenplay much justice.
You see, 25th Hour isn’t about patriotism, or heroics, or even New York City (although it is set here). Based on a novel by David Benioff, it’s about a convicted drug dealer named Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton) tying up the various loose ends in his life on the eve of his incarceration. With only a few hours of freedom left before he’s sent upstate for seven long years, Monty reflects on his mistakes, makes peace with his father (Brian Cox), and says goodbye to his oldest friends Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), as well as his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosiaro Dawson).
It’s clear this was intended to be an intimate character study, but none of the characters are drawn deeply enough to observe them more than superficially. Montgomery seems driven more by the fear of being raped in prison than he is by the prospect of losing his freedom. Jacob is a sad sack schoolteacher, but we never learn what makes him tick, and Slaughtery is introduced as a risk-taking Wall Street trader, but that information about him never pays off. Neither of them have much in common with Montgomery, other than a shared childhood. And though it’s suggested that Naturelle may have been the one who tipped off the authorities about Montgomery’s illegal activities, he doesn’t seem to give it too much thought, so there’s little reason for viewers to care.
The grimness of the subject matter is accentuated by the glacial pace at which the story unfolds. For the longest time, the film seems to be all exposition; we wait and wait for the action to start, before eventually realizing it already has. Things simmer for what seems like an eternity, without ever coming to a boil. Any time a degree of tension is attained, it’s quickly snuffed out by yet another allusion to 9/11, or by an exasperatingly undeveloped subplot concerning a flirtation between Jacob and one of his students (Anna Paquin).
As if to make up for the dull proceedings, the camera works double time. There are no lingering shots here; Lee appears to have given his cinematographer direct orders to never let the shot remain static for more than twenty seconds. As a result, the screen flickers with quick cuts, multiple takes and angle upon angle upon angle. In an especially distracting maneuver, every embrace in the film is shown in a rapid, multi-angled double take; it’s as if the projector hiccups whenever anybody hugs.
But without a doubt, the strangest thing here is a prolonged flashback depicting Montgomery and Naturelle’s introduction. In it, the unmistakably full-grown Dawson attempts to pass as a naughty Catholic School girl. With Dawson perched on a swing in a school playground, decked out in a clingy white top, micro-mini plaid skirt and thigh-high stockings, the scene comes across as the lurid fantasy of a lecherous old man.
Overall, this is a very different type of Spike Lee joint, darker in both tone and delivery than his previous films. Nevertheless, Lee manages to work in his distinctive brand of racial politics via an epithet-laced, five-minute diatribe that covers every segment of New York City’s population (and even the city itself), as well as, of course, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. It’s actually well done; playful, insightful and undeniably funny, it recalls his terrific Do The Right Thing. Unfortunately, like so much else here, it has little to do with the matters at hand.
(Appeared in Gay City News)